Kenney’s frontline support does not reach physicians

Alberta is relaxing restrictions. However, recently there has been another outbreak at the Cargill High River meatpacking plant and a man has died of COVID-19 at the Olymel pork plant in Red Deer.

COVID-19 variants are doubling every seven to 10 days in the United States and spreading rapidly in Canada. At least 50 cases of the UK and seven of South African variants have been identified in Alberta. As a result, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw has urged that there be a 24-day quarantine for household contacts who choose to stay home, rather than go to free self-isolation hotels. But will they comply, especially inasmuch as most likely have inadequate sick benefits?

With no domestic production until next year, recent cuts in supply chains, and the risk of export controls by the EU, the vaccination program for Canadians has been poor. We now rank 35th in the immunization rate per capita. Premier Jason Kenney has termed this “devastating for Canada.” A Toronto Star, Feb. 6 editorial concluded, “If the Trudeau government keeps stumbling on this front there will be hell to pay – and the government will deserve it.”

The increase in variants may be related to the fact that by mid-January, 234 international flights to Canada had carried passengers infected with the virus.

Yet Jason Kenney, Doug Ford and several other premiers still ignore the greater problem – over which they do have some control – of workplace infections.

They should set up additional self-isolation centres, and immediately guarantee paid sick leave to workers especially in essential areas.

Some 58 per cent of Canadian workers lack adequate sick leave. Not surprisingly, a Peel (near Toronto) Public Health study found that between August 2020 and January 2021, 25 per cent of workers with potential COVID-19 symptoms (including 80 persons who had tested positive for the virus) went to work anyway.

The new Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit pays $450 per week after taxes for up to two weeks, even to self-employed workers. Unlike for paid sick days, persons must apply for a payment, it reimburses less than the minimum wage, does not cover those who wish a shorter leave, and payment may take several weeks. These amounts are still inadequate to replace the lost income of physicians, most nurses, and many other health professionals.

In Canada, as of late July, about 20 per cent of COVID-19 cases were in health workers – double the global average. Infection rated are higher in MDs than in other health professionals.

Most B.C. MDs had been covered (up to age 70) by a government-funded disability plan. Those that were not, for months have been covered for quarantine or COVID-19 illness from day one. The Yukon and most provinces also cover their physicians from day one of self-isolation, although Nova Scotia cancelled this benefit in early December. Alberta and Ontario have left their physicians financially unprotected throughout the pandemic.

Although Kenney announced compensation for frontline workers on Wednesday, it still does not cover physicians.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland should also agree to raise the Canada Health Transfer to the provinces and territories. They in turn should agree to provide adequate pandemic sick benefits to all practicing physicians and for other health professionals, for they are a major potential cause of spread of the virus.

If Jason Kenney and the other premiers act quickly to guarantee their financial protection so that they will not be reluctant to be tested, and mandate adequate paid sick leave for other workers, this may help to reduce the likelihood of prolonged lockdowns with its dire effects on the lives, livelihoods, and mental health of all Canadians.

As the Toronto Star stated in an editorial on Jan. 23, “Stop finding reasons not to provide paid sick leave for workers so they can stay home if they have symptoms and avoid spreading COVID-19.”

Ottawa physician Dr. Charles S. Shaver was born in Montreal. He is past-chair of the Section on General Internal Medicine of the Ontario Medical Association.

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