“Healthcare for all would be one of the better actions the government can take towards alleviating the plight of immigrants in this country. Nobody chooses to fall ill, it does not see any gender, race, age or status. It would be a major relief for a majority earner of any household to know that there is hope and they need not worry if and when illness befalls as to not becoming a financial ‘burden’ to their loved ones.”
Queen is an essential worker without status, who contracted COVID-19 at work and spoke with Spring Magazine about her experience. There are hundreds of thousands across the country just like her, who are denied health as a human right. The pandemic has highlighted this longstanding injustice and the need for healthcare for all.
(Lack of) universal healthcare
Polls consistently show the vast majority of people across Canada support universal healthcare. But federal and provincial governments deny healthcare for those without status. This means migrants accessing healthcare are financially punished, and if information is shared with Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) it can result in deportation. All these problems predated COVID-19. As Queen explained:
“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic I was not allowed any form of health as a non-status immigrant. I literally could not ‘afford’ to get ill. Most ‘free’ clinics or funded centres like Unison only take clients within their catchment area. Had I gotten sick and gone into any medical facility, firstly I would openly be treated with disdain. It didn’t matter what my emergency was, I would have to ‘crawl’ if need be and get to the uninsured office and fill out paper work stating that whatever bill came I would pay, before I could get attendance. This literally happened to me at one point, and I collected a bill in the thousands afterwards; don’t even bother mentioning the cost of recovery medication on top of it all.”
Essential workers denied essential protections
The pandemic has worsened this pre-existing health crisis: many migrants provide essential work on the front-lines and are exposed to infection, and yet are themselves denied access to healthcare. Queen works as a caregiver in a nursing home, and needed to get tested for COVID during an outbreak. Testing a care worker during a pandemic should be a simple process without any barriers, but the denial of healthcare for all turned it into a major ordeal. As she recounted:
“Because I don’t have a health card, I needed to go to wherever I had a health record. At first they could not find my past health history on their system and weren’t sure if they should test me. When they found it, me being without any symptoms they then wanted to know why I came to them because they were only testing people with exposure or symptoms. I showed a letter from the home stating there was an outbreak and being a worker there, I should be tested. When the results came 48 hours later it was positive. After quarantine of 21 days I had to be retested twice and both had to negative and within 24hours of each other. However, when I needed a copy of the results to take into work I was told I needed to pay $34 to get my own test results. They would send it to a practitioner’s office or even my employer but if ‘I’ wanted it then there would be a cost. This felt like a violation of sorts that an individual wasn’t entitled to a piece of paper with their stats on it unless they were a GP or some work company. Ludicrous! I opted to get it sent to a health facility that I could collect it from and present for work.”
In addition, despite the crucial contributions of migrant workers—from growing food to caring for loved ones—they have been denied income support during the pandemic. As Queen experienced:
“During this lockdown period after contracting COVID from work as an ‘essential’ worker I was not eligible for any of the grants. My job is my lifeline to my independence. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. Being at home, had I developed any severe symptoms from COVID back in April I would have to fend for myself for medication, hospital and any other expenditures incurred. Thank goodness I had a firm circle of support but what about others who don’t?”
Healthcare for all people, at all times
The pandemic has highlighted that achieving universal healthcare, which so many support in theory, requires enacting migrant justice in practice. As Queen’s experience highlights, there needs to be healthcare for all, not healthcare for some. Communities needs to be encouraged to access healthcare, not threatened with bills or deportation. Coverage needs to be comprehensive, not restricted to COVID-19, and the right to healthcare needs to be permanent. As Queen explained:
“As a non-status immigrant I totally agree that the health measure taken should be a permanent fixture in the system. What makes COVID any different from any other chronic disease? They both run the risks of death. They both heavily impact on your quality of life. They both affect the lives of the loved ones around you providing moral support. Isn’t part of being a normal functioning individual in ‘our’ society to be healthy (mentally, physically, emotionally)? The wealth of society clearly depends on their health! COVID brought the world to its knees; no status, no colour, no creed, no race mattered. So why would they still want to deny such a basic human dignity to people whose blood, sweat and tears goes into keeping Canada great?”
In response to the pandemic, and longstanding demands for migrant justice, over 200 organizations have signed an open letter, sent to Justin Trudeau, the Minister of Health, Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, and all the premiers and ministers of health of all provinces and territories, calling for health for all. As the Healthcare for All National Coalition campaign states, “As members of the health and migrant communities, we call on Canada’s federal government to work closely with provincial and territorial governments, health institutions, and public health leaders to ensure and support access to healthcare for all people living in Canada, including those currently living in detention, regardless of immigration and citizenship status.” Their demands include comprehensive and permanent medical coverage, confidentiality that does not share information with CBSA or result in deportation, and a public messaging campaign informing uninsured communities and the broader public of healthcare for all.
To see the open letter and sign the petition, visit migrantrights.ca/healthforall
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