What support does the Canadian government have if “Essential” Workers die of COVID-19?

December 18 marks International Migrants Day

By Mildred German

December 18, 2020

Unceded Territories | As the world grapples due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for doctors, nurses, caregivers, and more healthcare professionals rise globally. Particularly in the US and Canada, the US has been devastated by COVID-19 with 17.4 million people tested positive to novel coronavirus to date, and nearly 500,000 people COVID-19 cases in Canada. And both the US and Canada healthcare system feel the impacts of the increasing COVID-19 cases and casualties.

The US itself has reported a big loss of their medical professionals, including Filipino nurses, who reportedly accounts for the 1⁄3 death of nurses in the US. Meanwhile Canada is grappling to contain the short labour demands in healthcare, to which the Province of BC has mandated to hire 7,000 new healthcare workers.

Yet, Canada’s systemic racism and ongoing deskilling of immigrants and foreign workers is not new and in its worsening situation, racism has also recently been loudly heard in the Canadian political arenas. Elected politicians, such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, have been throwing racist comments against people of color and foreign-trained medical professionals. This racism speaks to the attacks against Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Teresa Tam, and against Saskatchewan Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Saqib Shahab. Both “racialised” doctors have faced racist comments from public funded elected politicians and have faced no repercussion.

As the Philippines has been globally hailed for its dedicated Filipino nurses and workers working amidst the pandemic, the Filipino migration is rooted in the Philippine Labour Export Policy (LEP) which has trafficked over 10 million Filipinos to work in over 170 countries. The Philippines has been a world-renowned resource of migrant labour and nurses globally, particularly when the US colonised the Philippines, the education system in the country shifted to the US standard of education. The American education has implemented the English language as an official language of the Philippines. The American education has historically trained Filipino nurses to serve in the US.

Not only has the US and the other 170 countries shown interest in the pool of Filipino professionals, Filipinos are also over-represented in Canada’s health and care work.

Dr. Ethel Tungohan, the Canada Research Chair in Canadian Migration Policy, Impacts and Activism, and Assistant Professor of Politics and Social Science at York University, explains in her book “Filipinos in Canada: Disturbing Invisibility,” the Philippines being the “Empire of Care” and how stereotypes of Filipinos being all caregivers as Filipinos dominate Canada’s nursing and caregiving professions.

Professor Ethel Tungohan, York University.

However, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, are these stereotypes positive or negative?

As “essential” workers keep facing systemic racism, family separation, precarious work conditions, and housing issues, the pandemic has only escalated the violations against many migrant and “essential” workers. The increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in agricultural farms, food establishments, processing plants, and long-term care facilities not only expose Canada’s most precarious workplaces, but also the dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs foreign and migrant workers do that many Canadians do not want to do.

Thus, the risks of COVID-19 in the workplaces have been increasing and such have prompted many migrant workers and advocates to call for proper housing accommodations, PPE, access to healthcare services, and permanent status. However, the lack of political will only reinstates Canada’s “essential” workers as sacrificial workers mandated by the government to work, which Dr. Tungohan brings the concept of necropolitics wherein governments ​can ​use social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die during the pandemic.

“If there was political will, then perhaps the government would have given workers more than $1,500 to ensure workers’ protection,” Dr. Tungohan explained in an interview. “Perhaps they would have allocated more inspections of workplaces to ensure employers are following guidelines to ensure workers’ safety.”

As COVID-19 has shed a lot of systemic racism, foreign and essential workers continue to face barriers after barriers as they work during the pandemic. Yet, the Canadian government’s CDN $50million funds to help Canadian employers with the cost of quarantine for temporary foreign workers, ​does little to directly help foreign and essential workers.​ Canadian ​employers are the beneficiaries of these funds and the $1,500 eligibility per foreign worker to cover the costs of complying with the mandatory two-week quarantine upon their arrival in Canada.

Canada’s dependency on racialized bodies and labour has left these “essential”workers, their families, and communities “sacrificial” amidst COVID-19—such as in the experience of the Filipino community with the death of the ​47-year old Filipino health care worker,​ Warlito Valdez. His untimely death exposes Canada’s treatment of its “essential” workers.

Dr. Tungohan argues, “What we’re seeing is that in a pandemic, essential workers are actually sacrificial workers. So what that means is that you have people, like Warlito, who was found dead.”

Valdez, a healthcare worker, husband, and a father in BC, Canada, tested positive for COVID-19 and was denied medical care, resulting in his​ wife discovering him dead alone in their home. Valdez was hailed as a hero, however, his wife and family have to face the trauma of the ordeal, the aftermath of the death, and the financial difficulty of losing a provider and breadwinner due to COVID-19.

Valdez’s wife has asked the question on what support does the government have, this question and Valdez’s death have exposed the lack of support from the Canadian government to the essential workers who are mandated to work amidst the pandemic and may possibly die.

With Canada’s long history of failing to protect all workers rights and welfare, there remains no word and no support from the government in terms of the dead and dying workers and their families amidst this pandemic. As Canada seeks to rebuild its economy, with its depleted workforce, Dr. Tungohan explains Canada recruits economic migrants to keep its industry going.

As the Philippines also struggles with its own COVID-19 crisis in the middle of the hazards of climate change and the war on drugs, export of healthcare workers and nurses have been affected and also halted by the Philippine government. This opens the reality that Canada does not have an endless supply of workers.

“One question that remains is, how about migrant workers who are already here, why can’t they work, especially those who are non-status…,” Dr. Tungohan points out. “Use them”.

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