These epidemics have persisted for weeks, and despite pressure for more tests, experts and advocates agree that larger systemic problems are hindering the resolution of the problem. And if it were not to be contained quickly, these questions could widen.
“The Windsor-Essex area right now is zero. But at any time, it could be another community anywhere in Canada, “said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer for Justice for Migrant Workers.
“We have to be proactive in the second wave, and it seems that we have not learned from this first wave.”
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Advocating for the federal government to help migrant farm workers in Ontario affected by COVID-19
Almost half of all confirmed cases in the region come from the agro-agricultural sector.
As of July 14, there were 1,829 cases in Windsor-Essex – 833 related to agricultural work. They are concentrated on five farms – four in Kingsville and one in Leamington.
In June, the region experienced its largest two-day peak. A total of 98 new cases were reported on June 28. The health unit said that 96 of them came from the agro-agricultural sector. The following day, he found 88 confirmed infections, all but one of which were farm workers.
The count of the Windsor-Essex virus recently played an increasingly important role in the provincial total, exempting it from moving on to the third phase of reopening. On July 9, for example, the province reported 170 new cases, including 86 in Windsor-Essex.
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Local public health has stepped up mass testing on site in recent weeks and the Ontario government recently deployed a team from its emergency management agency to help coordinate the care and housing of farm workers who tested positive for the virus.
So what is the problem?
Advocates believe that this lies in long-standing systemic problems in the agri-food sector that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
On the one hand, many of these workers are undocumented or “linked to an employer working under precarious immigration status,” said Ramsaroop, which means “there is a constant fear of being sent home for having defended his rights ”.
He said workers fear not only eviction if they go to a hospital, but also the costs of hospitalization. Ramsaroop noted that there have been cases of migrant farm workers billed in the Windsor-Essex area for receiving medical care for COVID-19.
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“We also saw workers in the Windsor-Essex area telling us that they had requested access to the tests and that their employers had refused them,” he said. “They are worried about being sent home, and they are worried about next year that they will not be able to return to work in Canada.”
Inadequate living conditions also fuel the flames. Agricultural workers reside in shared, often cramped spaces, where physical distance is “absent,” said Ramsaroop. They share bathrooms and are transported around the properties in groups.
Despite provincial and local mandates to strengthen public health precautions during COVID-19, “there was no application, there was no responsibility,” he said.
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“What we see and what we hear from workers is pretty much the status quo.”
This was illustrated by a recent Globe and Mail survey, which found that the federal government had authorized certain farms to submit multi-year home inspection reports to secure labor during the pandemic. He also revealed that during a six-week period at the start of the pandemic in Canada, the government completely stopped carrying out housing inspections under the temporary foreign worker program.
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The provincial doctor and regional health units need to be more aggressive in controlling these outbreaks and protecting the safety of farm workers, said Dr. John Neary, a doctor at McMaster University and a general internist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, who spoke about the situation of migrant workers on Twitter.
Neary said that under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, health authorities could apply better housing and work standards to allow for adequate physical distance during this crisis. They could also prohibit employees who test positive from working and close operations on farms experiencing an epidemic. So far, a work stoppage has been issued by the local health unit on an unidentified farm.
But Neary says the approach seems to prioritize economic interests over worker safety.
“These decisions would likely result in significant financial losses and some poor harvests. I think the political decisions we have made show what our values are – that is to say, we place considerable importance on these financial interests and the availability of those crops that we protect migrant farm workers from this disease “, did he declare.
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“Many other important things in the economy and in our society have had to go through adjustments, and many other people have had to suffer losses as a result of the response to the pandemic. ”
On June 24, the development of policies related to Ontario’s agricultural industry was further scrutinized when the provincial health guidelines were updated, allowing asymptomatic employees to test positive for COVID-19 to continue working under certain conditions.
The advice sparked an outcry among migrant rights groups and the medical community.
Although the province said it could be determined “on a case-by-case basis,” the medical officer of health in Windsor refused to apply the guidelines in his area, which Neary praised Dr. Wajid Ahmed.
Even then, the most significant epidemics in agricultural circles “long preceded this orientation,” he said.
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“But this is not the main driver of the problems we face … The most important being their right to medical assessments and to be tested for COVID-19. “
What should happen?
Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens has called on the federal and provincial governments to take the lead in the fight against farm epidemics, saying the situation requires more coordination than they can provide locally.
Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald offered incentives for farms to test workers, or fines for those who refuse.
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But Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, says “the tools are already there” to deal with them.
“We have the capacity to do diagnostic tests, we have mobile test trucks, we have the capacity to provide safe isolation for those infected. We have access to some of the best medical care in the world on the planet, ”he said.
“The question is, is there the will to do it?” “
For Neary, this is not a Windsor-specific problem. Better policy making is needed, he said, and it needs to target both the short and the long term.
While it may make sense to delay economic reopening in the region – as Doug Ford announced on Monday – or exempt counties with farms from moving forward, the decision to classify Windsor as separate from Essex County or Leamington raises a broader ethical issue, he said. .
“It is a large workforce of people who do not have the same basic human rights as everyone else, who are so separated that the COVID epidemics among them are not a big problem for the rest of society, “said Neary.
“I don’t think people are consciously thinking about it, but the idea that this type of population segregation should allow for earlier reopening – it should really make us wonder what we are doing as part of the response broader public health rather than an opportunity to reopen. . ”
– with files from the Canadian Press
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