House Call with Carol Hughes

April 28 National Day of Mourning takes a different tone

Few among us would have imagined that we would find ourselves in a situation quite like this. With the battle to quell, control and ultimately vaccinate against the COVID-19 pandemic raging, most of us are relegated to the sidelines to do our part in the greatest unified effort this country has undertaken in generations. Instead of soldiers, this battle is being fought by those providing essential services and, of course, our medical community who are the equivalent of front-line combatants. While many of us would prefer do more to help safeguard us against the pandemic, these individuals have been asked to do more to achieve the same goal.

The pandemic has changed how we view many things and one consideration is the safety of the spaces we work within. What many of us took for granted, the safety of places like hospitals or long term care facilities, is now a source of anxiety for those deemed essential. Where in the past we would have considered jobs dangerous because they exposed workers to physical risk, we now see risk in the form of exposure to a virus that, at its worst, can kill. This brings a whole new focus to how we will mark this year’s National Day of Mourning on April 28.

Exposure to risk has always been a theme for National Day of Mourning, a day that commemorates those who lost their lives, were injured or became sick at work. In years past we have gathered to mark the day in places like the Miner’s Memorial in Elliot Lake. While the occasion is somber, there is always an air of determination among participants who invigorate the event by committing to the awareness and action that is required to create and maintain safer work environments.

As mentioned, Day of Mourning ceremonies in the past mostly focused on manufacturing, industrial and resource-based jobs since those were the careers that put most people at risk. This year, we will be thinking about those whose workplaces that might seem safer at first blush but have become so much more dangerous in just a few weeks. This highlights the precariousness of workplace safety and the fact that the effort required to keep these spaces both healthy and safe is an ongoing event.

This is something we can carry forward once the pandemic has passed. The concern we feel for those providing essential services and our medical profession is something that we have learned to consider, but prior to COVID-19, didn’t give as much thought to as we might have. That concern should be a feature of our consideration for all workers going forward. While we might not argue that we let our guard down, the fact is that we probably shouldn’t have been so ill-prepared to safe-guard those we are relying on now. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a perfect example of a safe-guard that was allowed to slide, even though we were aware that an event like this would occur. Ebola, H1N1, SARS and MERS were ample warnings, but fell on ears deafened by the quest for more economic growth.

Now we must consider whose economic fortunes were best served. Instead of pursuing greater public safety, we chose to put off preparedness. We moved manufacturing for many items, we are now desperate for, out of the country to pursue cheaper work-forces and laxer regulations in those locations. This didn’t just stretch our supply lines, it made it more difficult for us to provide PPE for all who truly require it-right now.

While we struggle to ensure medical professionals have the PPE they require, many others who are at risk because they perform essential services but are left to their own devices to ensure their safety. One example is people who work in congregate living settings such as those who attend to individuals with developmental disabilities. These people already performed difficult work with the potential for physical risk. Now, as we witness the tragedy unfolding in retirement and long-term care homes that became hot-spots for COVID-19, workers in congregate living spaces are rightfully asking themselves if their workplace might be next. Let’s remember essential service staff like those this year as we mark the National Day of Mourning for workers and commit to extend better health and safety measures to all workplaces.