The horrors COVID-19 wreaked on long-term care homes during the first wave are well known. Now faced with the second wave, a completely predictable massacre in long-term care homes is brought on by the willful negligence of long-term care capitalists who have put profits before our very lives.
Even with the first wave, months before COVID-19 hit, the experiences of Italy and Spain served as a warning that long-term care homes would bear the brunt of mass death caused by the virus. For months after the first wave began in Ontario, elderly residents died by the hundreds as overworked and underpaid care home workers pleaded for personal protective equipment (PPE) and increased staffing. Doctors called for all residents to be tested for COVID-19, even those who were asymptomatic.
For nearly a year, private residence owners and the Ontario government have ignored these warnings. Instead, long-term care operators paid out dividends to themselves and their investors, while Premier Doug Ford passed a law preventing residents and their families from suing long-term care homes for their actions during the pandemic.
The result of this prioritizing wealth over health has been the death of thousands of long-term care residents—and a harvest of sorrow for bereaved families across Ontario.
On Jan. 7, Tendercare Living Centre in the east end of Toronto announced that 73 of its residents had died of COVID-19, making it the deadliest outbreak at any long-term care home in Ontario. Before the outbreak, Tendercare had a patient population of 180, meaning that 40 per cent of its residents have now died from the virus. Doctors responding to the crisis in mid-December called it their “worst nightmare” and said that not enough staff were available to care for residents sick and dying of COVID-19, or even to help them eat and drink.
The horrific death toll at Tendercare is only the most visible example of lethal outbreaks that have spread to long-term care homes across the province. As of Jan. 10, Ontario reported that 2,967 long-term care residents and 10 staff had died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Out of 626 long-term care homes in the province, 245 homes or nearly 40 per cent were experiencing outbreaks.
Reports of conditions in care homes paint a disturbing picture, with severely overworked and overstretched staff struggling to care for residents amidst a dearth of proper health and safety measures. For those who remain, the risks are severe: Maureen Ambersley, a nurse at the Extendicare long-term care home in Mississauga, died of COVID-19 on Jan. 5. In voice memos recorded the previous May—when the facility was still virus-free—Maureen expressed fears to her son about a lack of protocols in place to protect residents and staff, as well as a chronic shortage of PPE that management ignored for months despite staff complaints.
Even before the pandemic, the situation for workers in long-term care homes was dire. CUPE National President Mark Hancock wrote in April:
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. […]
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.
Early on in the first wave, the CBC reported on an outbreak at the West Park Long-Term care home in Toronto, home to Doug Ford’s mother-in-law and managed by Extendicare. At this facility, one nurse was responsible for 120 residents. “I screamed for an hour and a half for help last night,” one resident said. “Nobody came.”
Deep into the second wave, with infection rates higher than ever, the situation has only worsened. At St. George Community Centre, a nursing home in Toronto, 156 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, more than at any other long-term care home in Ontario. Paramedics responding to a call from St. George in January “found their patient naked, alone, ashen-faced and struggling to breathe,” The Globe and Mail reported. Toronto Paramedic Services described measures to protect residents from the virus as “minimal to non-existent” and accused staff of being “complacent” about safety precautions.
The severe understaffing in long-term care homes follows an exodus of workers unable to bear the abysmal conditions any longer. In September, the Services Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare said that almost 30 per cent or 7,500 of the nurses and personal support workers (PSWs) they represent in Ontario had either left their jobs or were planning on leaving for financial reasons.
Before COVID-19, many staff members had to work at multiple homes to make ends meet. When the Ontario government placed restrictions on working at more than one home, many workers saw their incomes plummet by more than 50 per cent. “We had a shortage of staff in long-term care before COVID, and I’m very worried about what the picture is if we don’t do something to help these people so they can stay working in the long-term care sector,” Ontario Nurses Association President Vicki McKenna told CityNews in September.
Like other warnings to long-term care operators and the provincial government, McKenna’s plea fell on deaf ears. The poverty of many long-term care workers is shocking. A Dec. 16 transcript from proceedings at the province’s Long-Term Care Commission described a COVID-19 outbreak at an Ottawa shelter started by long-term care workers there, who were homeless because they could not afford to pay rent.
Even as residents died in appalling numbers and workers struggled to pay for a roof over their heads, long-term care bosses were rewarding themselves by continuing to pay out massive dividends.
Last spring, the Canadian Armed Forces were called into long-term care homes run by Sienna Senior Living that were experiencing severe COVID-19 outbreaks. A military report detailed the horrendous conditions at these homes, with residents receiving meals late or not at all, some confined to their beds for weeks, and PSWs expected to cover 30 to 40 patients each.
In the face of this crisis, Sienna—which had pocketed $21 million from the provincial government for staffing and PPE and $4 million in capital spending for infection control—managed to pay out $45 million in dividends to its shareholders. Such disgusting profiteering as care homes go understaffed and residents die in agony shows the priorities of capitalists in long-term care.
The severity of the outbreaks has prompted the provincial government to recruit hospitals to temporarily help manage outbreaks at long-term care facilities. As of Jan. 7, Ontario hospitals were managing 18 long-term care homes with outbreaks of COVID-19, such as North York General Hospital at Tendercare and the University Health Network at St. George Community Centre. Significantly, The Globe and Mail noted: “All but three of the homes hospitals are managing are owned by for-profit corporations.”
The crisis has also sparked vocal outrage from the community. On Jan. 2, protesters held a demonstration outside Tendercare to draw attention to the facility’s conditions. Maureen McDermott, a protester whose mother is in long-term care, told the CBC that Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton should visit the homes in person, and that the government should force owners and operators of nursing homes to pay workers better. “Suddenly, it has become acceptable in Ontario for seniors to die over profits,” McDermott said. She criticized the government’s slow response and asked how many more residents had to die before it brought in the military.
On Jan. 10, two federal party leaders attended a rally outside St. George Care Community, a for-profit long-term care home operated by Sienna Senior Living: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul. To his credit, Singh correctly identified the profit motive as the problem. “Profit has been killing seniors,” Singh said. “We need to get profit out of long-term care.” The Ontario NDP has likewise called for getting for-profit companies out of long-term care, as well as for an immediate raise and full-time jobs for health workers in this sector. However, both the federal and provincial NDP have been vague on what this means, i.e. whether they are calling for public ownership or non-profit homes, as well as how to achieve this transition.
Unfortunately, the Ontario Federation of Labour—while also calling for improved wages and working conditions for long-term care workers, legislating minimum care standards, and input from unions and workers—has not called for the elimination of for-profit ownership in long-term care. Yet it is precisely the profit motive that lies at the root of the current humanitarian catastrophe.
Enough is enough
In spite of endless warnings and a disastrous first wave, long-term care capitalists and their friends in the Ontario government are responsible for the severity of the current crisis and the thousands who have died as a result. Capitalists value profit over human life and cannot be trusted to protect workers and seniors.
All privately owned long-term care facilities must immediately be expropriated and put under democratic workers’ control. All workers must receive double hazard pay with full-time wages and benefits, combined with a massive hiring campaign to address chronic understaffing. All necessary health and safety measures should be put in place under the guidance of the workers themselves, with shop stewards and elected workplace committees overseeing their implementation.
Of course we cannot trust the Ford government to enact such measures, but this doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless. Direct action from workers at Thorncliffe Park Public School forced the government to provide mass testing for students and to close schools where there were outbreaks. The anger is palpable and all it takes is one spark to start a mass walkout of workers demanding expropriation of the long-term care parasites who have put their profits ahead of thousands of lives. The workers themselves have known, even before this crisis began, what is needed—decision-making power must be placed in the workers’ hands to determine what it takes to save lives.
The severity of the present situation may prompt wildcat strikes, but it would be better for unions in the long-term care sector to advocate a mass walkout. If long-term care workers go on strike, it could put massive pressure on the government to make the necessary changes.
Any such strike would be illegal. The Hospital Labour Disputes Arbitration Act forbids strikes in Ontario by unionized workers at hospitals and long-term care homes. But the fact is that huge numbers of people are dying while the government and for-profit nursing home owners fail to respond. In some cases, it is necessary to break the law to achieve justice.
Workers in long-term care homes have already shown their willingness to fight. In June 2019, a whopping 96 per cent of Extendicare workers at 10 nursing homes said they would be prepared to strike if it was legal in order to win a fair contract. The situation since then has become far worse, and drastic times call for drastic measures.
“But if workers walk out, people will die!” some may object. But people are already dying in terrifying numbers. In reality, long-term care workers are already walking out, one by one—quitting their jobs because of the intense stress, dangerous conditions and poor pay. If long-term care workers were to strike en masse, the government would be obliged to bring in the military and nurses from local hospitals. Nurses in Ontario tend to get paid around $30-40 per hour; long-term care workers should demand comparable wages.
Workers in nursing homes demonstrably cannot continue working under the current conditions. Militant tactics are necessary to force the government’s hand.
Protect seniors and workers!
Expropriate long-term care homes now!
Strike for public ownership, fair wages and safe working conditions!
Clarification: This article has been edited from an earlier version to more accurately describe the position of Jagmeet Singh and the NDP on for-profit long-term care homes.