On April 28, the military began an investigation of five long-term care facilities in Ontario. The May 14 report that followed, which detailed dozens of horrifying abuses, was sent to the federal government, and was not intended to be released publicly.
So it surprised many when, on May 26, Ontario Premier Doug Ford made the letter public, telling journalists, “The reports they provided us were heartbreaking, they were horrific, it’s shocking that this can happen here in Canada.” Ford also claimed to have not known the level of abuse that was happening at these facilities.
Ford’s decision to release the report suggests that the government wanted to get ahead of the issue. In reading the document, it’s easy to see why they chose this strategy: the details are disturbing, and the government needs to address the allegations head-on.
The report paints a picture of care homes that are, to their core, dysfunctional and toxic, where materials are not available, personal protective equipment is insufficient, infection control measures inadequate and cleaning is an afterthought. There are truly devastating stories of patients falling asleep with food in their mouths, forced feeding, sores and fungal infections, and one example of a patient crying for hours before anyone came to see them.
There is a straight line between decades of underfunding and these conditions. When private care is run to make profit, corners are cut. Patients are expected to pay for extras, like cleaning and laundry, as maximum profits are extracted to pay out to owners or shareholders.
Each of the five facilities in the military report — Hawthorne Place Care Centre, Eatonville Care Centre, Orchard Villa, Altamont Care Community, Grace Manor — is privately run, and four are for-profit. As of June 1, there had been at least 221 COVID-19 related deaths in these residences, with the fatality rates among patients in the homes ranging from 10 to 39 per cent.
These homes don’t even represent the most deadly in Ontario. As of June 1, the Forest Heights Revera, Camilla Care Community and Downsview Long Term Care Centre have had at least 51, 67 and 58 fatalities respectively. All of these homes are privately run.
Maybe Ford didn’t know the extent of the horrors, but he has certainly known there’s a problem with the homes for quite a while.
In 2018, the Ontario NDP served a motion to mandate a minimum four hours per day of care for all residents in long-term care. It passed first reading that July. This February, the Ford government reported its progress on the findings from the 2019 inquiry into long-term care, launched after a former employee was convicted in 2017 of murdering eight residents in her care. The government said they had fulfilled 18 of the 91 recommendations, and are working on 40 others.
Also, at the end of that month, Ford’s government struck an advisory committee to examine staffing in long-term care and launched a new framework for community and home care.
This crisis was a longtime in the making.
As of June 1, more than 6,200 people who lived in residential care have died from COVID-19, the vast majority in long-term care. The conditions in just a few of these residences have been exposed, but there’s no question that the overall system is a disaster. Those responsible need to be put on trial.
In deciding who should be held accountable for these conditions, and therefore what punishment should be handed out, it’s important to note that there’s a lot of blame to go around. The list of who is at fault is very long and goes back years.
Facility presidents and CEOs, board members, and management staff have cut corners on every service possible: from cleaning to laundry, from food to activities. Residents are either forced to pay more for better service, or are left to languish in horrible conditions that were created by the dual mandate of housing people and making a profit. Residents sharing a room with three other people is not uncommon.
The pursuit of profit has also caused harm to front-line workers, who are underpaid, overworked and routinely injured on the job. They’ve taken heroic steps to try and offer the care they know their patients need, all so that those who own these residences can pay out their profits.
And, of course, politicians and political advocates who have aggressively pushed for lower taxes paid for through austerity have a lot to answer for as well. The pursuit of profits off the backs of people in care is not only an abhorrent display of greed, but has also led to horrifying pain and suffering. Liberal and Conservative health ministers, long-term care ministers and premiers who either did nothing to fix the problem, or who actively made things worse, need to be punished for their crimes.
After pressure from the NDP, the Ontario government announced an independent commission into conditions at long-term care homes, but let’s be serious: this isn’t enough. It hasn’t even been a year since the findings of Ontario’s last inquiry into long-term care were released. There are few mysteries here about what happened. What Canadians need now is for those responsible to be criminally charged.
Until there are real consequences, politicians and business people will never change their ways. While jail is a less than ideal way to punish and rehabilitate offenders, it’s the best mechanism we have right now to extract a bit of justice from those who have profited off elderly care, whose political career was built on top of rewarding people through deregulation and tax cuts or the few, like former Ontario premier and Cartwell board chairperson, Mike Harris, who have done both.
Hand wringing and strong words are simply not enough. We need charges and trials, yachts sunk, mansions seized and misery spread around the echelons of society whose members apologize publicly and benefit privately off of death.