On the Pandemic Front Line in Nova Scotia

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by Edson Castilho, President, IWK local of the NSNU

I am a nurse at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. It is a women’s and children’s hospital that serves the people of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI. This hospital has had no cases of patients with the corona virus. Very few or no staff (it is impossible to know because the bosses cite the confidentiality of occupational health information) have tested positive. This means no staffing shortage caused by the need to have contacts of an infected person self-isolate until they test negative. So, we have been relatively lucky, compared to an institution like Northwood.

Northwood is the largest long-term care facility east of Quebec. Fifty-two (as of May 22) of the total of fifty-eight (90%) deaths that have occurred in Nova Scotia as a result of the pandemic have occurred to residents of this one facility. It is a private, not-for-profit facility that receives government funding (woefully inadequate) for the care of the people who live there. Northwood is a facility that consists of a wide range of elderly residents, from seniors who live independently in their own Northwood apartments, to seniors who require some assistance with medical care or activities of daily living, to seniors who are completely reliant on the care provided by the staff for their medical needs as well as activities of daily living.

Currently, the thinking is that COVID-19 was brought into the facility by asymptomatic staff who acquired it in the community. Once in the facility it spread very quickly due to the way that residents are housed, with many

living in ward-like rooms with up to four residents per room. The virus also spread very quickly among staff causing a staffing crisis. This crisis resulted in an order, issued by the Minister of Health, Randy Delorey, that reassigned staff working at the QEII Health sciences centre to Northwood.

Those workers reported appalling conditions almost immediately and the union issued a news release. Actions were then taken to ramp up supplies of PPE, proper rooming and isolation of patients, etc. But just recently, a nurse from the IWK who volunteered to go there, reported that conditions were still terrible, that patients with symptoms were not isolated because they had not yet been tested. It is a scandal that so many seniors have had to die because of decisions by many governments, not just the current one, to underfund long term and home care. The CEO of Northwood, to her credit, has been asking for years for capital funding to convert Northwood to an all single patient room facility and was denied every time. In fact, Northwood’s overall funding has actually been cut by the Liberal government each of the last two years, all in the name of their obsessive quest to balance budgets and slay the deficit.

At the IWK many nurses have been reassigned in a manner that completely violates the collective agreement. Decisions made by managers that affect workers are always made with no input from workers and no management accountability. Nurses have been shifted to units that are chronically short-staffed. This had nothing to do with the effects of the pandemic. Many of these nurses feel justifiably angry with the employer for the upheaval this has caused in their lives.

In Nova Scotia, we have been quite fortunate overall (outside of Northwood). But this pandemic has really shone a light on what can happen when governments consistently make decisions that favour the wealthy and business interests. In the name of cutting deficits, the premier and the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia have gone to war against unions, have done nothing to address poverty (Nova Scotia was the only province to see its child poverty rate increase in the last ten years), cut funding to long term and home care and the health system in general, and continued to impose austerity on the majority of Nova Scotians.

I really hope that this pandemic will result in an awakening to the need for a robust and well-funded public sector; that the public will press the government to serve the needs of working people instead of corporations and the wealthy, and that the public will demand improvements to the health system on which we all depend, especially in times like these.