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Canada has to fix long-term care now and for the long run

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Image: Bournemouth Borough Council/Flickr

The figures are grim. Nearly half of all deaths from COVID-19 in Canada are linked to long-term care or nursing homes. For so many families in Canada, the past few weeks have been filled with tragedy, heartbreak, and in the middle of it all, loneliness.

The reports of outbreaks in homes paint a difficult picture.

Everybody is asking how we got here. But if you ask one of the 65,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees members who work in long-term care, they will tell you that our long-term care homes have been in crisis for years.

They will tell you that the arrival of COVID-19 has added enormous stress to a system that was already broken.

Staffing in long-term care has been at crisis levels for years. The industry thrives on providing part-time and precarious jobs for its employees, who are often forced to work in two or more homes just to make ends meet. This is especially true in private, for-profit homes that want to cut costs, like benefits and sick leave, in order to boost profits.

While it's common to hear politicians talk about the "heroes" saving lives in long-term care homes these days, their records in government reveal a completely different attitude.

Across Canada, long-term care is understaffed and underfunded. Workers are paid barely minimum wage to perform physically and emotionally difficult work, often without any benefits or job security. In a pandemic, when health-care workers get infected and are not able to work, staff shortages are exacerbated.

And governments have largely been ignoring the problems. Just last year, for example, Ontario's Conservative government drastically scaled back inspections of nursing homes. Last year, only nine of 626 homes in the province received resident quality inspections. At that inspection rate, of 1.4 per cent per year, it would take 70 years to assess the quality of life for our elderly residents. 

This is beyond unacceptable. 

Sadly, Doug Ford isn't the only bad apple, and this type of neglect has been rampant across the country.

Study after study has shown us that, in the world of long-term care and nursing homes, conditions of work are the conditions of care. When working conditions are degraded, the quality of care suffers as well. This connection is being reinforced more than ever by the current crisis. It is time for our governments to recognize that. 

Fortunately, some governments are already forging that path. British Columbia stepped up this month when it switched all long-term care employees in the province to full-time jobs in single facilities at good, family-supporting union wages. Workers in private, for-profit homes saw an average raise of $4 per hour.

These measures represent important progress but, in reality, they're only the beginning of a much larger transformation that needs to happen nationwide to fix this broken system.

Ultimately, we need to recognize long-term care for what it is: health care. It needs to be properly funded, with clear and consistent standards across the country. The workers who take care of our seniors deserve proper pay and secure jobs, so that residents and workers alike can live in health, security and dignity.

This crisis is laying bare the mistakes of our governments' approaches to our seniors and the people who look after them. It's clear as day that when this pandemic is over, we cannot go back to the way things were. In the meantime, we should be moving heaven and earth to fix these mistakes, right now. Our moms, dads, grandparents and loved ones are counting on us.

Mark Hancock is the national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canada's largest union, which represents 700,000 workers nationwide, including approximately 65,000 workers in long-term care homes across Canada.

Image: Bournemouth Borough Council/Flickr

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