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THE IVORY SILO: Time to turn a waffle into a ring

Last fall our provincial government committed to doing a better job this time around… to better protect our seniors and most vulnerable in the second wave. In the early days of 2021 it would appear that we have the same bumbling approach that has destabilized regular life for everyone while still failing to implement measures to protect those who need protecting.

Time and time again, this government of the people has blamed those same people for its own gross failures. While senior cabinet ministers jet-setted around for Caribbean holidays complete with pre-recorded fireside holiday greetings in an attempt to cover up their tracks, us regular folk were still grappling with the stress of trying to figure out who the heck was going to take care of the kids next Tuesday or how we are going to make rent in a couple weeks without the tips and wages from a serving job.

Politicians have gotten used to trying to solve problems with platitudes and grandiose statements, but the pandemic is reminding us that every once and a while you need leaders to actually lead. To make hard decisions that may not be popular, to say ‘no’ to the needs of their corporate donors and instead take them to task for focusing on profits over people. Perhaps our own member, Randy Pettapiece, could remind his overlords in Toronto that promising parents on a Tuesday that children would return to school and then following it up two days later with a ‘closed until further notice’ is an asinine way to communicate on the single most stressful issue for parents with young children. Or that promising an iron ring around long-term care homes needs to be followed up with actual actions, given the current protection measures would be better described as an iron waffle. The failure to address gaps in protection at long-term care homes may be the most egregious sin for a government that has proven inept to adapt on a multitude of fronts.

There were issues in our long-term care industry that existed before COVID-19 arrived. Availability of beds, staffing, and patient quality of life all had room for improvement. The pandemic took those weaknesses and have blown open the deficiencies for all to see. In our hunger for shareholder profits, caring for our elderly has become a commodity to be monetized; one where private long-term care operators make obscenely high returns with such poor outside oversight that a serial killer was able to operate for over a decade, killing patients without detection in for-profit homes throughout Ontario. If there could be one silk purse to be made out of the sow’s ear that is COVID-19, it could be permanent reforms to improve this system before we are crushed with inability to handle the oncoming surge of LTC residents as the Baby Boomers age.

Anyone that has had a loved one go through their final days in LTC has seen what absolute heroes the personal support workers and nurses are in these homes. Operators hungry for profits operate their homes with bare-bones staffing while paying bottom-barrel wages to the folks who make sure our elderly are treated with dignity. Like so many industries, for-profit LTC operators exploit people through temporary employment agencies; denying hardworking PSWs a permanent job and the protections that come with it. It is not uncommon for a PSW to be paid minimum wage with zero job security… given the important role they play in dignity for the resident how have we come to accept this?

Last fall the provincial government promised to provide pay increases of three dollars an hour for the folks that are showing up day in, day out through the pandemic, yet there are still over 200 homes in Ontario where these funds have not materialized. Beyond low pay, there is the issue of chronic understaffing and labour shortages.

If we are serious about buffering the resiliency of LTC before the crush of Baby Boomers, then we need to work closely with the federal immigration ministry to recruit foreign-trained people to fill the gap.

According to the Ontario Health Coalition, the average LTC care home in Ontario is short at least five PSWs for every 24-hour staffing period; that equates to the need for over 22,000 PSWs right now just to cover the shortages, forget addressing the understaffing and increased future needs.

Canada is a desirable place to live and that alone should be enough to recruit the people needed to permanently fix the labour shortages; it’s high time we got some help for the folks who are feeling the real pain of professional burnout.

Beyond the chronic operational deficiencies that need to be addressed is the failure to buffer protections from COVID-19 for both staff and residents of LTC homes.

On Nov. 13, 2020, Premier Ford promised an ‘Iron Ring’ around LTC homes… perhaps someone should fill him in that that still hasn’t been done. An iron ring indicates an impenetrable field around a sensitive target. There are only two ways to create this kind of perimeter in absence of full vaccine coverage, and the provincial government still has not figured out how to execute either option.

The current standard weekly testing strategy in high risk zones is not a seven-day iron ring; a negative test is only as good as the period of time until that person goes back out into the community. We have an iron ring for one day followed by blind hope for the following six days. That’s an irresponsible approach when better is possible. While rapid test kit supply may be currently limited, our inventory of rapid tests needs to be fully allocated to daily testing of LTC staff in the areas of concentrated community spread.

As we grapple with test availability, in the interim the provincial government should be facilitating conversations between the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Long Term Care, and the Ministry of Tourism to create local isolation hotels for LTC workers who cannot access daily testing. LTC homes are already adapted to shifts, re-organized to make blocks and have people live in short-term isolation during their work week to ensure that community spread can be kept out of the homes. While not perfect, this approach would be far more effective to control the virus as long as we continue to have high rates of community transmission.

An inability to clearly communicate coupled with an insistence of shaming people instead of owning up to their own failures has left us with a provincial government that has severely ruptured the trust of the public. How can a family trust anything they say after the absolute bungling of back-to-school over Christmas? If one is struggling to follow the lockdown protocols, how can you ask them to tough it out when the rich and well-connected jet around the world, thumbing their nose at the rules? Premier Ford needs to pull up his socks before we all stop listening for good because after a while, incompetence will be met with nothing more that deaf ears and blank stares.

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Stewart Skinner is a local business owner, former political candidate, and has worked at Queen’s Park as a Policy Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. He can be reached at stewart@stonaleenfarms.ca or on Twitter: @modernfarmer.