“International human rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to provide medical care to those who need it. Now more than ever, we need to ensure health care access is available to all in the time of COVID-19 pandemic.”
By AUBREY SC MAKILAN
RED DEER, Alberta — Over 125 frontline workers have raised their voices urging the Alberta government to include everyone in its fight against corona virus disease (COVID-19).
In a petition letter entitled “Health Care for All” led by migrant support and advocacy group Migrante-Alberta, doctors, nurses, social workers, educators and other healthcare providers call for health coverage for those potentially vulnerable to the disease but without access to health care because of immigration status. The petition is addressed to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro.
Petitioners urged the Alberta government to ensure COVID-19 that assessment centres have an explicit policy to be free and accessible to all, regardless of immigration status; to recognize that existing health care pathways such as community clinics and hospitals must be free and accessible to all people, and work to remove barriers such as registration fees and bills.
They also call for the implementation of appropriate staff training; development of a clear and explicit public messaging campaign to inform people that assessment and care is available to all residents, without charge, at COVID-19 centres and beyond.
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced yesterday that anyone with the primary COVID-19 symptoms, which include a fever, cough, shortness of breath, runny nose or sore throat, in Alberta will now have access to testing. Hinshaw also said that when sufficient equipment and chemicals to conduct swab tests, serology and blood tests are received, Alberta Health Services’ goal is to increase daily testing capacity from 7,400 to 9,000 lab tests by the end of April, and about 20,000 daily tests by mid-May.
Marco Luciano, director of the Filipino organization Migrante Alberta, however said that it is not clear if “anyone” includes even those who do not have current immigration status. “If the messaging is clear and inclusive, that would be the only time those in fear would feel comfortable to come out not only to access testing but also seek medical attention, if needed,” he said.
There are more than 100,000 Filipinos in Alberta.
Safety of all
While most Albertans receive public health orders with a projection of the virus peaking by mid-May, there are still many who fear they might contract the disease while having no immigration status in Canada, which makes them ineligible for basic health care services.
The uninsured population include newly-landed permanent residents, temporary foreign workers (TFWs), international students, and undocumented residents. Calgary-based epidemiologist Dr. Mukararram Ali Zaidi said that during a pandemic, “we should be able to provide healthcare for all.” Recognizing that people experiencing symptoms associated with the virus will seek care through community clinics and hospitals, Zaidi stressed that these sites must also be free and accessible to all.
COVID-19 has become a public health emergency in Canada. Petitioners said that uninsured individuals in Canada are often denied access to care and can face insurmountable debt.
“We are deeply concerned about these pre-existing barriers to health care for uninsured individuals in Canada, specifically in Alberta and the potential public health implications in the context of a pandemic. As a group of health care providers and community members, we call on all levels of government, health institutions, and public health leaders to act now to ensure care for everyone,” the petition read.
Calgary family physician Dr. Jillian Ratti stressed that including uninsured people is not only a correct moral policy position but a necessary action to ensure that our entire population is able to effectively fight this virus. “To deny healthcare to migrants is to cruelly devalue their lives during this unprecedented threat to human health and also to put the lives of other Canadians at risk,” said Ratti. “If we don’t treat absolutely everyone, our public health response is weakened and endangers the lives of us all.”
Luciano asserted that the “international human rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to provide medical care to those who need it.” He added, “Now more than ever, we need to ensure health care access is available to all in the time of COVID-19 pandemic.”
A registered nurse in Calgary, Martin Gatan warned that “we do not want what is happening in the United States right now, citing reports that the Trump administration policies discourage immigrants from coming forward, which could hamper efforts to contain the epidemic.”
Fell through the cracks
Luciano calls for compassion, instead of racism and prejudice against undocumented and uninsured migrants in Canada. “Most of them just fell through the cracks of the immigration system and politics despite all their efforts to comply with the requirements for permanent residence,” he said.
Lynn (not her real name) came to Canada in 2010 as a restaurant and bakery manager in Ontario under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. She was given a six-month contract but was laid off after only three months. After being unemployed for a year, an opportunity brought her to Edmonton, Alberta in November 2011 as a store supervisor, then as a manager for two years until 2014.
Lynn recalled she was put in graveyard shifts until three a.m. when bus service was no longer available. “I had to wait until six in the morning for the first bus to come,” she said. She added that she would be booked often at 10 o’clock the same day without adequate rest in between shifts. “As a store manager, I was often understaffed. It was really stressful,” she said. She was forced to resign after her request for transfer to another branch was denied. She found a new employer in December 2014. While waiting for a new work permit from the government, she got pregnant and gave birth to her daughter in September 2015. By this time, her health coverage had expired.
Lynn stressed, “We do not want to be a burden to the Canadian economy. We were once part of the active members of the Canadian society who worked diligently, contributed to the economy, paid all taxes and hoped to eventually get our permanent residence. We have worked night and day to show our utmost desire to eventually be part of the Canadian society.”
Edward, another undocumented TFW, lost his status in 2017 and has been working secretly since.
“In this time of pandemic, all we ask for is for the Province of Alberta to be inclusive of everyone needing health care,” said Vanesa Ortiz, an advocate from the Mexican Association of Calgary, adding that since these undocumented migrants are excluded from the financial assistance from the federal government, their desperate desire to continue working in time of pandemic for their daily survival makes them more vulnerable to contract the disease.
The provinces of BC, Ontario and Quebec have already announced they will cover the cost of COVID-19 services for uninsured people who do not meet the criteria of the provinces’ respective health care coverages.
Alberta currently has more than 1,800 confirmed cases, more than 900 of which are active cases. Alberta is facing an unprecedented national public health crisis, said Luciano, citing possibly a million infections, with deaths between 500 and 6,600 by the end of August as the province projected an “elevated scenario.”
“Let us ensure that the safety of Albertans will not be at risk because others are discouraged from seeking screening or treatment for COVID-19 for financial reasons,” said Ortiz. “This pandemic should not divide us but bring us together, stronger.”