Death of separatism unintended outcome of COVID-19 pandemic

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Instead of trying to go it alone, provinces are stronger when they work together.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 27, 2020.

OTTAWA—The death of separatism is an unintended outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the first time in my memory, provincial governments are looking to the federal government as more than just a cash machine.

They are actually working together, pooling resources and information in an effort to fight the spread of a pandemic that knows no borders.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has been positively glowing in his exhortations for partners across the country to work together.

While announcing the redistribution of excess Alberta personal protective equipment, the premier was effusively collegial.

It was a far cry from only a few short months ago, when Kenney was lauding the Wexit movement for shining a light on Alberta’s oil troubles.

Premiers across the country have been working together with the prime minister to solve the common problem of access to COVID-fighting information, protective equipment and health care human resource shortages.

Without a scintilla of criticism, the Quebec government called in the Canadian military to supplement the shortage of personnel in the province’s long-term care facilities.

Pre-pandemic, a similar move would have prompted a howl from those separatists who think Quebec’s strength lies in going it alone.

The pandemic also gives us a better picture of the shared benefits of acting as a strong team. Compare the infection and death rates in our country to those in the United States, and it is abundantly clear that a national, public health-care system is a better weapon against an anonymous virus than the hodgepodge of medical supports available south of the border.

At press time the American death rate was 40 times higher than Canada’s, with only ten times the population.

So, one lesson has been learned from our time together in collective self-isolation. Canada works better as a country when we all work together.

On the domestic level, we have an oversight of just what is working and what is not.

The death rate in Quebec is almost double that of Ontario and the gold standard bearer for COVID containment is the province of British Columbia.

With a population of more than five million people, the province has suffered fewer than 100 COVID-related deaths. Quebec’s population is almost 8.5 million, but their death rate is 11 times greater than that of B.C.

Pandemic post-mortems will undoubtedly delve deeply into the reasons for the mortality discrepancies among different provinces.

Some of the provincial differences are self-evident.

The first, and probably most significant, was the difference in the date of spring break between Quebec and British Columbia.

Quebec’s break was in early March, at a time when the ferocity of the virus was not yet fully understood by politicians.

Self-distancing had not yet started, and Quebecers brought the virus back home with a vengeance.

In the case of British Columbia, it was the latest school recess in the country, and by the time break-week arrived, the province had already clamped down on travel, effectively limiting the viral path.

Provinces also have different regimes managing their long-term care facilities.

British Columbia did not allow personal service workers to operate in more than one nursing home.

That regulation is cited as one of the reasons that the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Ontario and Quebec homes was not replicated in British Columbia.

During the pandemic, Ontario and Quebec have modified their regulations, but the issue of health workers’ pay has not been addressed in kind.

Most health care aides would love to work in one facility only. But the companies that manage many of these facilities for government focus on hiring part-time workers to keep their costs down.

Discussion is ensuing about topping up the pay in these low-wage high-risk health environments, but that is only part of the problem.

The other part is the lack of government oversight into what is actually happening in nursing homes.

Quebec Premier François Legault is promising a fulsome investigation into the deplorable situation in some of the homes in his province. His effective communication skills managed to build public confidence early in the crisis, but the widespread number of deaths in long-term care homes has been eroding his credibility.

Ontario cut the number of inspections in its homes to only nine of 626 homes last year, with the lack of oversight partly responsible for inspection spread. Three years ago, all facilities were inspected annually.

The post-mortem will spawn serious changes to disparate long-term care regimes.

Instead of trying to go it alone, provinces are stronger when they work together.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.