Editor's column: What else do care homes and meat-processing plants have in common?

Will we go back? Won’t we go back? It’s the big question.

A few weeks ago, most of us simply accepted there was no good answer, so got on with living our hunkered-down lives. But with infection rates of COVID-19 levelling off, and in many cases   declining, the drum beat for reopening the economy grows ever louder.

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Quebec has announced schools there will re-open in the middle of May. And while B.C.’s education minister still won’t commit to a date, vulnerable students are already back at school, and Richmond’s medical health officer is encouraging the city to re-open playgrounds, parks and other outdoor recreational facilities.

So we’re getting close, right?

It felt like we were, but suddenly this meat-processing thing has taken some wind out of our sails (or is that sales?)  Sorry, bad pun.

Just yesterday, we saw outbreaks of COVID-19 at two more poultry-processing plants in the Lower Mainland, bringing the total to four in a week.

 Other meat-processing facilities across the country have also reported spikes in new cases. The concern is not just that there have been outbreaks at specific locations, but that Canada’s food supply chain could either be tainted or face shortages. In fact, McDonald’s Corp. announced Tuesday it would be sourcing imported beef for its burgers due to its concern over Canada’s meat supply.

“We’re very much on this issue,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Wednesday (April 29) during his daily media briefing in Ottawa. But he took no questions on the matter.

Provincial medical health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry noted that, at least regarding the first two poultry plants in Vancouver, the cases can largely be traced back to one of the two plants where it appears someone showed up to work sick — which, by the way, Premiere John Horgan had something to say about.

“The lesson that I’ve learned from the limited information I have on the poultry facility is that workers were coming to work (despite showing symptoms) because they were fearful that they would lose wages and not be able to meet their expenses,” Horgan told a news conference last week.

“We can’t have people putting others at risk for fear of economic consequences for themselves.”

No kidding...but oddly familiar.

Fear of losing wages was also one of the factors that triggered the outbreak in the Lynn Valley care home. Clearly, these jobs don’t come with adequate, if any, paid sick leave.

And here’s another common denominator. Many of the employees at the first poultry processing plant also worked at the second one. Why that’s the case, I’m not sure, but we know in the case of care aides, the issue has been a lack of hours.

According to their union, many care aides don’t get full-time hours at any one home so are forced to cobble together a living by working at different facilities. (See p.7) A compounding factor for meat processing workers is the fact many are temporary foreign workers who are supplied housing, meaning they don’t just work together, they also live together.

In other words, none of this is random. We know social distancing is critical, as is staying home when you’re sick and minimizing your exposure to different groups. Yet those precautions aren’t  even possible for some of these workers.

Now, about that reopening of the economy. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling the novelty of this social distancing wearing thin. But maybe we need to channel our frustration with this pandemic towards changing the conditions that are dragging it out.

On a lighter note, until this shut down, I didn’t even realize our complex had about a dozen glorious cherry trees. Here’s to counting our blessings.

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