By Lisa Gretzky, MPP
The following Op-Ed ran in the Windsor Star on May 22
As the province moves toward easing restrictions on the economy and on workplaces this week, most Ontarians are likely feeling optimistic. Of course, it’s encouraging to see things moving in what appears to be the right direction after months of financial struggle and uncertainty.
Yet the battle against COVID-19 continues to rage inside 14 long-term care and retirement homes in Windsor-Essex, which remain embroiled in outbreaks of the virus.
The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit has reported that over 75 per cent of the people who have died in the pandemic locally were residents of these homes.
This should never have happened. Vulnerable seniors, and the staff that care for them, should have been better protected against this deadly virus. With the reopening of Ontario’s economy in sight, it is crucial that we address what went wrong to create the crisis in long-term care, and how Ontario’s response to the pandemic left seniors so vulnerable. Given that many experts say we could see another wave of COVID-19 in the not-so-distant future, we need to have these conversations now.
In the 1990s, the Harris government began opening up the province's long-term care system to private, for-profit companies. In the decades since, our system has become dominated by these corporate-run homes, with successive governments failing to ensure adequate standards of care and regulations to protect residents and workers alike.
Today, many of these homes are staffed by chronically overworked and underpaid support workers and care staff. Many of them are forced to work multiple jobs, sometimes at more than one long-term care home, because it is cheaper for their employers to only offer them part-time hours. The result is that some residents — seniors and those with complex medical needs and disabilities — are getting less and less direct care. We’ve all seen the horror stories at certain homes. Bed sores, malnutrition, unexplained injuries. Truly awful conditions, seemingly unimaginable in a province like ours.
The lack of regulation and oversight adds more fuel to the fire, and is another longstanding issue that successive governments have failed to address. Recent reporting found that in the past year, only nine of Ontario’s 626 long-term care facilities underwent comprehensive inspections.
All of this brings us to today, in the midst of a pandemic that has taken the lives not only of long-term care residents, but of personal support workers and nurses. It is a failure of our government to protect vulnerable people and those who care for them, and it absolutely cannot continue.
On Tuesday, NDP leader Andrea Horwath tabled a motion in the Ontario Legislature, calling for an independent, public inquiry into long-term care, similar to the public inquiries that were launched following SARS and Walkerton. The Ford government voted this down, instead favouring a government “commission” — essentially a review, with no legislative teeth or public oversight. If almost 1,400 deaths in long-term care across the province doesn’t warrant a public inquiry, what does?
Enough is enough. We cannot return to “business as usual” in Ontario, without recognizing that long-term care should never return to the status quo. We need to get the profit out of long-term care, and we need workers to get paid a living wage with stable hours that don’t force them to cobble together an income. We need minimum standards of care for residents that provides them with proper care and dignity. That future is possible — we just need to make it a priority.