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Judy Haiven: Doctors, be the change!

A field hospital in the parking lot of Sunnybrook Hospital. Photo Evan Mitsui/CBC)

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The front page of Saturday’s Toronto Star – arguably the Canadian daily with the highest circulation – displayed eight short quotations from prominent Toronto-area doctors.  Each one took aim at Premier Doug Ford and his disastrous handling of the Covid crisis and his insistence at remaining ignorant, bellicose and nasty.  

As one emergency room doctor put it, “There’s not one single thing that he [Ford] did to protect the people who are most at risk, not a single, solitary thing,” said Dr Lisa Salamon at the Scarborough Health Network.  

Numbers of Covid cases in Ontario are through the roof, 4812 new cases on Saturday alone. Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are overflowing. City hospital parking lots and  hospital green spaces are awash with huge tents so that hundreds of patients who are now sick enough to visit Emergency rooms have a place to wait for triage. The tents offer a waiting room in which the sick patients are socially distanced.  

The reaction of Doug Ford would be a joke if it weren’t so calamitous. He acts like a tin-pot dictator – there are no rules except the ones he himself makes. Close the borders with Quebec and Manitoba, he cries. Police should be stop-checking anyone driving or walking and demand they explain where they are going and for what reason. That was stopped dead when five major police forces in Ontario refused to obey his orders. No outdoor activities, no playground visits, Ford ordered. Again he had to walk it back. 

But the damage is there for all to see. Peel Region which borders on the west side of Toronto has had 37% of all workplace outbreaks. Durham Region on Toronto’s east side has had 33% of all workplace outbreaks. 900 workers in three Amazon facilities on Toronto’s outskirts have contracted Covid.  

What about the workers? Doctors and epidemiologists have warned that without sick pay, most “essential” workers have no choice but to go to work even with symptoms of Covid. And continue to work until they can’t anymore. 

Across Canada 70% of workers have no paid sick leave. In Ontario, under Employment Standards workers are allowed up to three unpaid days a year for sick leave. Since March 2020, there is a new provision for more unpaid sick leave called Infectious Disease Emergency Leave During Covid-19.  

Still the vast majority of essential workers – in factories, the Ontario food terminal, warehouses, slaughterhouses, supermarkets, gas stations and even hospitals  –have no paid sick leave. These are the people the doctors on the front page of the Star are talking about.   

These essential workers are not well-paid and they can’t work from home. Most live from pay cheque to pay cheque. Sometimes they are new Canadians or immigrants.  Usually they are racialized. Many are single parents, or the only person in the household who still has a job – given the unemployment caused by a year of Covid.   None of them can afford to forego wages for a day or a week, let alone the four to six weeks it can take to battle Covid. 

Doug Ford’s buddies in the business world, and his voters who own companies or warehouses or taxi services or supermarket chains have no interest in footing the bill for their workers’ sick pay.  Even if some businesses are unionized, collective agreements rarely provide for paid sick leave for more than a few days a year. 

Only two provinces, Quebec and PEI have requirements for paid sick leave in their labour standards laws. Quebec has two days paid leave and PEI has one day paid leave – in any one year.  Employees in the federal jurisdiction (such as bank workers) get three paid sick days a year.

While Ford and his cronies don’t want to pay for sick leave, neither does the federal government – which sees labour standards as a provincial matter. The underlying question is why isn’t it the employers’ responsibilities to pay for sick leave during this pandemic? 

Doctor after doctor has said to the media, and to any and all who will listen – workers have to be able to access paid sick leave. They need to get well if they have Covid, and maybe more importantly – they should not spread it to co-workers, to bus drivers, or to grocery store workers. For the first time in my memory, doctors are leading the demand for a huge societal shift .  

Doctors are furious and rightly so. They are now seeing mothers and fathers with young children dying or at serious risk of death. Doug Ford and other premiers across the country – notably Jason Kenney in Alberta, Scott Moe in Saskatchewan refuse to listen. They are sycophants to capital and tone deaf to concern for anyone else.

Here’s a possible solution. 

If 10 doctors put on their white coats, their masks and marched with signs up and down in front of each hospital in the Toronto area for ONE hour – let’s say from 12 noon to 1 pm, on one day, it might push Ford to capitulate. 

Opposition politicians, school teachers, professors and scientists have not got through to Ford. But now doctors are in the lead in this fight for life over death. The facts are clear. But doctors have got to walk, up and down – they must be seen. They are not on strike but they need to show they won’t back off. 

There are probably 20 hospitals in the Toronto area – if even 10 walk in front of  each hospital, or 200 doctors walk one day this week at noon, there is no saying there won’t be more doctors joining the protest next week.  If the doctors keep it up – we’ll see change.

Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, an organization that fights discrimination, bullying and racism in the workplace.  Contact her at equitywatchns@gmail.com

See also: Judy Haiven: Some thoughts on Covid-19 and Nova Scotia

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