COVID-19 has taken a ‘heavy toll’ on immigrant women working in health care, report says

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A surprisingly high proportion of COVID-19 cases in Ontario have been among women working in healthcare, according to a new report that experts say is stepping up calls for better protection.The report – co-authored by Dr. Astrid Guttmann, scientific director of ICES, a non-profit research institute – follows a study that linked administrative data on immigration and provincial health to examine screening patterns of COVID-19 from mid-January to mid-June among newcomers and their Canadian-born counterparts.

“I was surprised by the high proportion of positive cases, especially among women who worked in the healthcare sector,” Guttmann said in an interview. “It’s very clear that the pandemic has taken a huge toll on this group of women. ”

Researchers linked the provincial COVID-19 test results of more than 624,000 people in Ontario to federal data on 2.6 million immigrants and 549,000 refugees who arrived from 1985 to 2017. Residents of long-term care homes were excluded, as were those who were not. eligible for provincial health coverage, such as asylum seekers awaiting refugee hearings.

Of all the adult women in the study who tested positive for COVID-19, 36 percent were employed as health workers. Of those, 45% were immigrants and refugees, with people born in the Philippines, Jamaica and Nigeria accounting for the bulk of the cases, researchers reported on Wednesday.

Many healthcare workers who test positive have immigrated as paid caregivers, often coming to Canada as resident nannies and making the transition to personal support work, Guttmann said.

The results, she said, should be a “call to action” to tackle systemic inequalities by:

  • Allow people to leave their jobs to get tested.
  • Protect people in their workplace.
  • Offer paid sick leave so that people in precarious employment do not lose income in order to protect themselves and their families in the event of illness.
  • Support those who cannot safely quarantine in their own crowded homes.

Guttmann said frontline workers, including those who don’t work in health care, often have precarious jobs. “People get sick and in some cases die because they meet an economic need in this country, so we need to put in place policies and practices that will protect people.

Dr. Astrid Guttmann, Scientific Director at ICES, a non-profit research institute, led the study on COVID-19 among immigrants, refugees and other newcomers to Ontario. She says tougher policies are needed to protect frontline workers who contract COVID-19. (CBC)

Joadel Concepcion, 46, is a registered nurse who came to Canada from the Philippines in 1996 and now works in long term care in Toronto.

Concepcion said she believed she contracted COVID-19 at the end of March, when public health officials ordered nursing home staff to take samples from residents who had fever or respiratory symptoms and lived on several floors while personal protective equipment such as masks were scarce.

“This time when it was a [emergency], I felt like I was going to die, ”she said of her hospital stay.

She returned to work on August 14 and is taking prescribed heart and diabetes medications for her after her COVID-19 illness.

Personal support workers need higher wages to counter a chronic staff shortage, Concepcion said.

“Job security sometimes doesn’t exist either, because the job is not permanent and… there are no benefits”.

Status quo for vulnerable workers is ‘unacceptable’

“We currently have a scenario where the most vulnerable workers provide the most essential services under the worst working conditions, and that is totally unacceptable,” said Naomi Lightman, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Calgary. which studies the inequalities between the weakest. salaried workers in the health, education and domestic services sectors.

She was not involved in the study, which she described as overwhelming and powerful in documenting disparities with empirical data.

Lightman said she wanted to see political will and money invested in improvements such as higher pay to retain personal support workers, sick leave and, in some cases, more transportation options. safe for people without a private vehicle.

Longer term, she said, housing insecurity, overcrowding, and universal child and elderly care should be considered to address the growing disparities between rich and poor in Canadian society.

Action can be taken, experts say

Dr Aisha Lofters, a family physician and researcher at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, said she was saddened but not surprised by the results.

Factors such as living in a part of the province with higher rates of COVID-19 and in overcrowded housing compound the problems people may face, Lofters said.

Dr Aisha Lofters says racism, xenophobia and discrimination are long-standing issues that lead to an imbalance of power and are now receiving an unprecedented level of attention in academia, media and business during the pandemic . (St. Michael’s Hospital)

“Why are racialized people, immigrants in this more vulnerable position? Lofters asked. “I hope people will recognize that this is not something biological and genetic, but that it is really a system that we have created. ”

Lofters said racism, xenophobia and discrimination are long-standing issues that lead to an imbalance of power and are now receiving an unprecedented level of attention in academia, media and business during the pandemic.

“If you’re trying to tackle one thing at a time, because it’s so ingrained in our society and our systems, it could really take forever,” Lofters said. “If each [of us] look at what they can control and work on and tackle it urgently but thoughtfully, I think this is the best way to go. ”

In the healthcare industry’s shift to virtual care, for example, she suggested looking at which patients are not accessing care due to a lack of digital technology and providing devices such as smartphones. Also, reminding people of the availability of interpretation services could keep them from falling through the cracks, Lofters said.

Guttmann said providing mobile test units to at-risk communities is one of the pillars of the success of the monitoring and testing strategy.

CIEM Toronto, formerly known as the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, studies population health data to inform health issues.

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