Yassin Dabeh, a 19-year-old contract cleaner at Middlesex Terrace Long-Term Care Home, died of COVID-19 on Jan. 21. Yassin, who moved from Syria to London, Ont. with his family in 2016, was the youngest in the region to die of the virus. The outbreak at the 105-bed care home has already infected more than 150 workers and residents, claiming the lives of 14. Middlesex Terrace is a for-profit long-term care home owned by APANS Health Services. The death of someone so young, a refugee facing racism and a worker in the worst sector for negligence, is a tragic example of everything wrong with capitalism.
Yassin was failed by the capitalist system at every level. The virus might not have reached the London area if Ontario had immediately instituted a full lockdown with mass testing and contact tracing. However, the Ford government kept much of the economy open for the sake of short-term profit. The health-care system was already at breaking point before the pandemic started, and shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and test kits quickly followed.
The outbreak at Middlesex Terrace may have been prevented if they had enough staff, proper PPE, paid sick days, and no one working at multiple facilities. However, cost-cutting measures have led for-profit long-term care homes to have 78 per cent more COVID-19 deaths than non-profit homes. Most workers at Middlesex Terrace are members of Unifor Local 302, but Yassin was a contract worker and therefore wasn’t covered by the full benefits of a unionized workplace.
Yassin made multiple visits to the hospital to receive oxygen but was denied full admission. When he stopped breathing, his father called an ambulance but they were too late. From the global spread of COVID-19, to the government response, to the individual employer, Yassin’s death was the collective fault of capitalism. The profit motive made cost-cutting and unessential openings inevitable, something you wouldn’t expect from a system with any semblance of rationality.
Although Yassin’s death was shocking due to his young age, it was also a coalescing of many of the trends COVID-19 has brought to the fore. Yassin was one of thousands of refugees in Canada forced into low-paying, non-unionized jobs with no benefits. It’s no surprise that some of the largest outbreaks in Canada have been among migrant farm workers trapped in horrible conditions with no union representing them. Right-wing politicians fan the flames of xenophobia to divide the working class and make this oppression seem justified. They say refugees contribute nothing to society, but Yassin’s life is a reminder that refugee workers are infinitely more essential to society than the owners of APANS Health Services and other capitalists who sit at home all day collecting profits.
It’s also a reminder that precarious labour is making workplaces more dangerous. If you don’t have paid sick days, you’re more likely to come into work with COVID-19 symptoms. The problem is compounded if you’re paid minimum wage and don’t have the savings to take a few days off, and compounded even further if you’re working on a contract basis and don’t know if you’ll have work in a few months. All these factors compel precarious workers to keep working through their symptoms, increasing the risk of transmission.
Yassin’s death is an indictment of the rotten system that failed him. He and the other 100 million victims of COVID-19 are proof that capitalism is completely unfit to handle a global pandemic. We mourn the dead, but we don’t want their deaths to be in vain. The whole labour movement should honour the fallen by fighting for paid sick days, organizing work stoppages at unsafe facilities, and ultimately for the end of the capitalist system that sacrifices countless workers upon the altar of profit.