Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been nothing short of a disaster. As of Apr. 15, Canada ranks 28th in the world for number of administered vaccines per 100 people. Health concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine could slow things down even further. Through all this, a certain sector of the economy has been given preferential treatment: Oil and gas.
In March, Northern Health, the public body that administers healthcare in the northern portion of British Columbia, announced that 15,000 vaccine doses would be administered to industrial work sites in the region. These include oil sites belonging to the Trans Mountain Pipeline, LNG Canada, and Coastal GasLink. Although the current phase of B.C.’s vaccination plan is specifically meant to target seniors aged 80+ and Indigenous elders aged 65+, vaccinations are being administered to oil workers as young as 18.
This is not the first time through the pandemic that oil companies have been given better healthcare access than the general public. As LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink flew in over 3,000 workers back into job sites through March 2021, they were able to set up special onsite rapid testing labs exclusively for their employees. While most people have to deal with significant wait times to get tested, and then wait a further stretch of time to get any results, oil companies have the luxury of setting up their own testing facilities. Dr. David Bowering, now retired chief medical officer for Northern Health, said that it was unfair for these corporations to have their own “deluxe, Cadillac private health system”, while public health services are struggling to allocate testing to the public.
Any insinuation that these measures are being carried out for the safety of oil workers could not be further from the truth. From the very start of the pandemic, oil bosses have insisted on keeping worksites open, forcing hundreds of—and on some sites, over a thousand—workers together into dirty, cramped working and living conditions. Needless to say, these are perfect conditions to spread COVID-19. These exact worksites have been hotspots for near constant outbreaks. The northern region of B.C., which is where most of these sites are located, makes up half of B.C.’s COVID cases despite only making up one third of the province’s total population. The LNG site in Kitimat has seen not one, but two separate outbreaks during the course of the year. In December alone, Alberta’s government listed 11 different oil sites with confirmed COVID outbreaks. Stunningly, over 1,000 Alberta oil sands workers have been infected since March 2020.
And this is to say nothing of the risks these camps pose for surrounding communities. A large portion of the workforce of these camps come from out of town or out of province. Workers will split their time between working on-site and spending time back home. In the pandemic, this has meant spreading the disease. One particularly bad example of this can be seen at the Kearl Lake site in northern Alberta. An outbreak there was linked to over 100 cases spread across four separate provinces. This poses risk to rural communities in general and Indigenous communities in particular who already struggle with lower quality health care than the rest of the country. The remote Dene community of La Loche, Saskatchewan was devastated as a direct result of the Kearl Lake outbreak. For a time, the community of 2,800 accounted for a third of Saskatchewan’s total cases.
To prevent further outbreaks, oil and gas should not get vaccine priority. These sites should be shut down and the workers who run them should be sent home at full pay for the remainder of the pandemic. All of the preferential healthcare treatment that has been given to the oil industry should be completely rerouted in favour of frontline workers like nurses, teachers, and retail employees.
These vaccinations aren’t going towards protecting workers, but towards protecting profits. They’re not going towards the oil industry because it’s Canada’s most “essential” sector, but because it’s one of Canada’s most powerful and most profitable industries. Oil bosses don’t care about the health of their workers, or the health of anyone else for that matter. The fact that governments are prepared to prioritize the oil and gas industry when vaccinations are slim once again demonstrates that, under capitalism, profits come before health.