Source: Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

As the second wave of the coronavirus overtakes Ontario, COVID-19 continues to devastate long-term care (LTC) home residents more than any other demographic. News reports come out almost daily of horrible conditions in these facilities and the deadly consequences for those living there. Thousands have died in what is believed to be institutional negligence aided and abetted by poor government regulation. Rather than support LTC residents and their loved ones, the Ford government is pushing a law that would make it nearly impossible to sue the government or the private corporations that run these homes. Even worse, this law is set to be retroactive to the beginning of March. This is yet another example of the capitalists putting profit before people.

Death and devastation for long-term care residents

Long-term care facilities support some of the most vulnerable people in the province. Yet conditions in many homes have been atrocious since long before the COVID-19 pandemic. A report from Unifor and the Ontario Health Coalition that was released in January 2020 showed that LTC facilities were already in crisis. This report pointed to ongoing staffing shortages, unrealistic expectations of workers, and cuts to funding from municipal governments and the province as the factors largely fueling this crisis.

In another recent report by the CBC, analysis of inspection records found that 85 per cent of the province’s LTC homes repeatedly broke the law with no consequences for the facility or owning company. The most common types of repeated violations were related to inadequate skin and wound care, medication errors, abuse, and neglect. In many cases these violations resulted in serious injury or death to residents in these homes. And despite claims of Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton that the province has “no tolerance” for abuse and neglect in nursing facilities, inspection reports are nearly always ignored with no consequences. With these reports showing the atrocious state of LTC facilities prior to the pandemic, it is not surprising we are seeing such devastation now.

As of the last week of October, there have been 6,637 cases of COVID-19 in Ontario’s long-term care homes since March. Of these cases, there have been a horrifying 2,000 deaths. What’s more, 64 per cent of all COVID-19 fatalities in the province have been attributed to LTC facilities. This enormous loss of life is a direct result of the mismanagement and negligence by the organizations in charge of these facilities. 

In the small town of Hagersville in southern Ontario, a Coronavirus outbreak at the local privately-owned long-term care facility Anson Place has wiped out one per cent of the community’s population. Seventy-one residents of the 101-bed facility contracted the deadly virus, with 24 of those cases resulting in death. An additional 30 staff members fell ill. In such a small community, virtually all residents of the town were either related to or knew someone that died at Anson Place. SEIU Healthcare and the Ontario Nursing Association, who represent the workers at the home, have stated that management failed to provide the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers and failed to follow infection prevention protocols, which directly caused the outbreak and eventual deaths at the facility. The degree of loss and devastation this has brought to the community is immeasurable. 

In Hamilton, all but one resident of the 64-bed facility at the Rosslyn Retirement Residence contracted COVID-19. An additional 24 staff members also tested positive. The home, operated by St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, had to evacuate all residents to hospital in May of this year. However, a horrifying error was made when one of the residents was forgotten at the home and left without care for two full days. It was only after the family of the resident called the organization repeatedly and insisted that their loved one was not at the hospital that the resident was found. At the time of evacuation there was no master list of residents, and no regular staff present as they were all isolated due to contracting the virus. Rosslyn’s operating license was revoked after the outbreak and this disgusting incident. However, the home is disputing its role, stating that it is “unfair” to blame Rosslyn and that they took “reasonable steps” to comply with pandemic protocol from the province. 

There are innumerable other reports coming out daily of similar cases of scandalous conditions, horrifying neglect, and uncontained outbreaks in Ontario long-term care facilities. And with the second wave of the Coronavirus overtaking the province, we can only expect more devastation. With this in mind, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the province in September for failing to adequately regulate and oversee LTC homes. The class action was filed on behalf of all residents of LTC facilities during COVID-19 and their loved ones. Seeking $500 million in damages, this lawsuit and the potential for more being brought forward have the Ontario government scared. It is no coincidence that the Ford government is now attempting to make changes to the law to protect itself and the companies that operate LTC homes. 

Protection for the ruling class, injustice for everyone else

A proposed change to Bill 218, the Supporting Ontario’s Recovery and Municipal Elections Act, would make it nearly impossible for long-term care residents and/or their families to sue long-term care homes for their actions during the pandemic, and much easier for LTC homes to defend themselves. This applies retroactively back to the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. This is a direct attack on those that have been the most deeply affected by the pandemic and families who have lost loved ones in long-term care homes to COVID-19.

The proposed addition to Bill 218 would require those suing long-term care facilities to prove “gross negligence,” as opposed to ordinary negligence which was the prior standard. Gross negligence is when a person or organization purposely acts with disregard for the health and well-being of others in a way likely to cause foreseeable harm. This is much harder to prove in court than ordinary negligence, as the defendant must prove intent. This change in legislation would mean that residents and their loved ones, such as the man left behind accidentally at the Rosslyn Retirement Residence, have no legal recourse for the suffering and loss they have endured during the pandemic.  

Another proposed change to Bill 218 is re-defining “good faith effort” when it comes to efforts taken to keep long-term care residents and staff safe from COVID-19. Currently a “good faith effort” means a competent and reasonable effort to follow public health and legal guidelines. However, the proposed addition to the Bill purposely changes the definition to “an honest effort [to follow legislation and policies], whether or not that effort is reasonable.” This means that even if long-term care homes made choices that were not reasonable or logical which affected resident care, as long as they can show that their intention was to follow policies, they are not liable. 

At the time this article was written, the proposed changes to Bill 218 had passed first reading. These changes have been made with the specific purpose of protecting the Ontario government and the private corporations that own and operate the majority of long-term care facilities. The residents who have been forced to live in horrific conditions and active outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as their loved ones, will be denied their only legal recourse. 

Expropriate long-term care homes

The only way to immediately and effectively protect long-term care residents and workers from COVID-19 and end the crisis of abuse and neglect is to expropriate the facilities and put them under democratic workers’ control. Abolish for-profit ownership and ineffective government management. Previous reports have shown that the death rate in private for-profit homes is twice that of public facilities. The workers of LTC homes know what is needed to protect themselves and residents. Wages for workers must be increased and working conditions must be improved to end chronic understaffing. Low pay and part-time hours force workers to work at many institutions, spreading the virus as they go. Access to quality PPE must also be guaranteed. Any possible exposure to COVID-19 must be taken seriously and adequate space for isolation must be made. Only then can we end the death and suffering in long-term care homes.