The psychological fallout of COVID-19 is a haunting, collective trauma. Remember during the early days of quarantine, we thought society would be flushed with COVID-related art? Instead, millions chose escapism, reliving Michael Scott’s misadventures in The Office while Michael Bay’s pandemic-inspired Songbird was panned.
The most disrespected group of the Zoom era is the group that does not have the benefit of showing up to work on a webcam: our healthcare workers. If you have nurse or personal support worker friends, you have likely heard their heartbreaking work stories. When they go home to get a reprieve from work, they then see news stories and acquaintances on social media saying COVID-19 is a hoax. The pandemic is real, and so is healthcare worker PTSD. Streaming comedies doesn’t fix trauma.
The trauma of precarious work
The Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario has published a damning report showing the abuse of RPNs: compounding the health risk and psychological stress of working on the frontlines of a public health crisis, 57% have experienced financial duress. As one nurse described in the report, “if we are off sick related to COVID-19 or because we are waiting for testing results, we are not paid for our time off. This is unfair and a slap in the face.”
As a result 71% of RPNs have reached a “breaking point” during the pandemic and over a third are considering leaving the profession permanently. The most cited reason: inadequate wages. Friendly reminder: Canadian billionaires have added $53 billion to their wealth during this pandemic. None of that wealth has trickled down to the 90% of nurses who have cited an increased workload during COVID. How many ICU beds have Canada’s billionaires taken care of? How many people have they had to watch die before their eyes?
Of course, RPNs are but one part of our vital force of healthcare workers. Personal Support Workers are working at the epicenter of the pandemic: 81% of Canadian COVID deaths during the first wave were in long-term care homes, about double the rate of other countries in the OCED. This is rooted in precarious work, including low wages, part-time work and the denial of paid sick days. Ford’s much publicized wage increase for PSWs last October has yet to materialize for hundreds of PSWs, and the government just voted against paid sick days.
The abuse of healthcare workers extends beyond Ontario: Alberta failed to access “more than $300 million in available federal supports for things like long-term care and low-wage essential worker top-ups”. (Is declining to spend a necessary amount of money Good Ol’Canadian politeness?
Healthcare workers are but one part of our vital force of essential workers. There are also farm and meat packing workers, grocery and bakery workers, packing and delivery workers. All of whom have experienced outbreaks related to precarious work and the denial of paid sick days. In Peel Region, one in four people with COVID-19 symptoms went to work sick, because they had no other choice.
No one is protected until everyone is protected
The failure to respect the people holding up our society requires wide-ranging solutions to make amends. We can look to ongoing campaigns for this, on the principle outlined by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr. Teresa Tam: no one is protected until everyone is protected.
As migrant rights groups have indicated, the denial of status undermines workplace safety and vaccine rollout: we need status for all and healthcare for all. As the decent work movement has indicated, low-wage and part-time jobs compound the health risks of a pandemic: we need decent work for all. As health advocates have indicated, the denial of paid sick days fuels the pandemic: we need paid sick days for all, and go beyond the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.
Essential workers have paid a deep, traumatic price for the pandemic while not being paid enough or protected enough for their labour. It is time that every province and the federal government atone for their failed leadership and work to give what is owed: status, decent work and paid sick days for all.
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