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Gary Burrill: Cracks and chasms – On long term care and the pandemic

Last month, Janice Keefe, Chair of the Expert Panel on Long-term Care which reported to the government last year, said that the pandemic has taken the “cracks” in the long-term care situation in Nova Scotia, and exacerbated them into “full-blown chasms.”

That’s the truth.

It’s a long-standing crack, certainly, which the Keefe Report shone light on, that there are simply not adequate numbers of staff on the floors of the long-term-care facilities of Nova Scotia to provide the care that’s needed. That crack has turned into a full-blown chasm since mid-March, as many workers, in already short-staffed facilities, have had to stay at home to care for children, or have been required to isolate themselves.

Both the crack and the chasm are addressed in our Party’s 2018 Care and Dignity Act, which the government ignored, but which would have legislated increases in the hours of care per resident commensurate with the greater frailty and acuity in nursing homes at present.

And it’s a long-term crack in long-term care that workers in the sector aren’t paid anywhere near their value. Last week’s announcement of a $2,000 wage top-up for all frontline health care workers contains a recognition of the chasm between the $17-$18 an hour received today by continuing care assistants, and what they should be paid.

And even more, the government’s failure to have opened a single new long-term-care facility in the last seven years is a crack that COVID-19 has widened. Every decision not to proceed with building a new nursing home or updating an older facility has also been a decision not to replace older, shared-room facilities with the contemporary single-occupancy standard.

Lisa Roberts, the MLA for Northwood Manor, drew attention in the Legislature to Northwood’s recent unsuccessful attempts to seek government funding for this kind of room reconfiguration, just prior to the pandemic. Dr. Strang has acknowledged the role of such configuration questions in transmission of the virus.

We mark with sorrow the passing of the 48 people whom COVID-19 has taken, 42 of them at Northwood. We stand in admiration before the steadfast and herculean efforts which continue to be made there in the battle against the virus. And we call, when the clouds clear and the time is fitting, for an inquiry into long-term care and the pandemic–an inquiry not in search of culpability or accusation, but of understanding and improvement.

Amongst the necessary improvements, none, perhaps, is more important than the development, or recovery, of a proper sense of the priority deserved by long-term care.

We have seen, these past two months, what governments can accomplish when a sense of urgency propels them. In the post-pandemic world we wait and hope for, that same force and focus will need to be applied to providing for the long-term needs of those in long-term care.

Gary Burrill is the leader of the Nova Scotia NDP.

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