Parliament focuses on COVID-19 and women, but ignores nursing homes

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Minister for Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef. Image: Maryam Monsef/Twitter/Video screenshot

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a major health and economic crisis that principally victimizes women. 

As Naomi Lightman and Ted McCoy reported on April 29, workers in "highly feminized jobs connected to care work are facing dramatically inflated rates of COVID-19 infection." At the same time, female-dominated sectors are among the hardest hit by job losses.

Parliament took note of that dire situation in its once-a-week, face-to-face session on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. 

Maryam Monsef, the minister for women and gender equality, opened the conversation by remarking that "COVID-19 is a crisis unlike any other. It's hit women hardest with jobs lost, women taking on more unpaid work than they already were for their kids as well as their elders."

The Liberal minister added that "women are the majority of those on the front lines of the fight against COVID. That includes nurses, of course, but also personal support workers, other health-care workers, child-care workers, food sector workers and social workers." 

Monsef went on to talk frankly about increased rates of gender-based violence. The pandemic, she said, has exacerbated "the vulnerabilities of too many women and their children."

COVID-19, Monsef observed, has resulted in a "shadow pandemic" -- a pandemic of violence against women and children. Increased isolation, and the stress it has created, has resulted in more violence -- and, worse, more severe violence -- than ever before. 

At the same time, organizations that help victims report that many women who experience violence are not seeking assistance and support during the current crisis. In Monsef's words, for these organizations "things are eerily quiet." 

That silence is not universal. On April 27, Monsef said, "in some places, calls for help have gone up by some 400 per cent" -- referring to one particular women's shelter in the Greater Toronto Area.

Overall, however, women who need help are hampered from seeking it by their living conditions during the pandemic. 

It is hard for them to connect with friends, community services and families, and their abusers can more easily than ever control their hour-by-hour and minute-to-minute behaviour. 

As Monsef put it during Wednesday's House session, women are "trapped at home with their abusers."

Governments must work with each other

In an earlier, virtual session of the House, Winnipeg NDP MP Leah Gazan asked Minister Monsef about special measures the government might take "in light of the growing crisis of domestic violence." 

Specifically, Gazan wanted to know if "the government supports 24/7, barrier-free spaces for women and for two-spirited and LGBTQ+ people, who often do not fit into traditional shelter systems."

The minister responded, as federal ministers often do these days, by pointing to actions the government took before the pandemic, and by reminding her colleague that the federal government is limited by its constitutional role. In this country, most basic, human services fall within the jurisdiction of the provinces.

"We have, pre-pandemic, invested in over 7,000 shelter spaces," Monsef said, "and we recognize that more needs to be done. We are working with our provincial and territorial counterparts to fill the gaps."

At the end of their exchange, Monsef did personally promise to have her staff look into Gazan's request for "a safe space" in her own city, Winnipeg, "for women, girls and others who do not fit into the regular shelter system."

During this past Wednesday's in-person session, Monsef talked about the big picture. She outlined, in broad terms, the kind of money the federal government is spending on gender-based violence. Some of it is new; some, pre-pandemic.

The government has allocated $50 million to help organizations that assist women victims of violence "to continue their critical work at this important time." Approximately half of that money was distributed by two umbrella groups: Women's Shelters Canada and the Canadian Women's Foundation. Both, said Monsef, "worked quickly to get money into the bank accounts of front-line organizations."

Conservative MP Raquel Dancho, also from the Winnipeg area, thanked the minister "for providing us with an update on how previously announced funding is being spent." Then, she upbraided the minister for discontinuing funding for some organizations, notably those that combat sex trafficking. 

Dancho quoted Megan Walker, the executive director of one such organization, the London Abused Women's Centre, who said: "The individuals that are going to suffer are sometimes the most marginalized in society -- women and girls who are forced into the sex trade to do horrendous things. It's actually really heartbreaking."

The government has said that the funding for such groups stopped because it was part of a time-limited, five-year program that came to an end this March. The minister did not comment on the effectiveness of the London Abused Women's Centre or of any other organizations that lost funding. 

Monself did make the non-specific pledge, however, that the government will continue to fund a variety of anti-sex-trafficking activities. 

Long-term care crisis was waiting to happen

The conversation in the House did not focus to any great degree on one group of women who are very much in the firing-line during the COVID-19 crisis: the women who work in long-term care facilities for the elderly. 

The Canadian group Translating Research in Elder Care (TREC) describes itself as "an applied health services research program that aims to improve elder care by producing knowledge and by moving knowledge to action."

TREC released a study on the same day the House met face-to-face, which points out that two thirds of the residents, and 90 per cent of the staff, in Canadian nursing homes are women, and that, in the words of TREC's scientific director, Carole Estabrooks: "Caregiving is systemically underpaid and undervalued."  

TREC notes that "the pay for caregivers runs between about $18 and $24 per hour, protective equipment may be in short supply, homes are perpetually understaffed and overcrowded, and the work takes a high physical and mental toll."

In the four western provinces "two thirds of care aides are over 40 years old and six out of ten speak English as a second language."

More troubling: "A third of the care aides work at more than one nursing home, often because nursing homes do not offer full-time hours for a living wage and benefits." 

A high proportion of nursing-home residents are afflicted with dementia, TREC tells us, but the staff receive "poor training" for the complex care those sufferers need.
 
TREC adds that caregivers' "work is physically demanding, with high injury rates. It is psychologically demanding with emotional stress, verbal and sometimes racialized abuse."

If and when the time comes to rethink long-term care for the elderly in Canada -- and those of us who expect we might need such care in the future have to hope such a time comes soon -- TREC says "decisions and policy must reflect the proportions of women working and living in nursing homes." 

The research institute set some clear guideposts for future reforms in long-term care.
 
"An early goal must be acceptable working conditions, including pay that reflects the value of the work," the research institute says, adding that "staff must have time in their work schedule each day to do more than the absolute bare minimum of care -- time to socialize with residents and meet more that minimal physical needs."

"Care," TREC believes, "must centre on people and relationships, not just on task lists." 
 
More fundamentally, TREC urges us all, citizens and governments alike, to "make caregiving an economic priority." We must pay for it appropriately, they say, and "support the particular needs of women caregivers." 
 
"We know COVID-19 did not cause today's tragedy in nursing homes. But it did shake the nursing home system, shining a stark light on deep and longstanding fault lines," says TREC researcher Janice Keefe, chair of the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging. 
 
"In our high-income country, we accepted that 'warehousing' our loved ones was good enough," Keefe says, mournfully, "We took advantage of those with dementia, who had to wait for the voices of others to advocate for them. And that is shameful."

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Maryam Monsef/Twitter/Video screenshot

Editor's note, May 22, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the federal government had announced a total of $73 million to help organizations that assist women victims of violence during the pandemic. The actual total is $50 million.​

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