Alberta Gov’t Urged to Provide Inclusive Healthcare during Pandemic
Over 125 frontline workers including doctors, nurses, social workers, educators and other healthcare providers have raised their voices urging the Alberta government to include everyone in its fights against corona virus disease (COVID-19), in a petition letter entitled “HEALTH CARE FOR ALL” led by migrant support and advocacy group Migrante Alberta. (LINK TO THE OPEN LETTER)
The letter, addressed to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and health minister Tyler Shandro, highlights health coverage for those potentially vulnerable to the disease but without access to health care because of immigration status, the petition read.
The letter calls to ensure COVID-19 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, regardless of immigration status, and work to remove barriers such as registration fees and bills, and implement appropriate staff training; to develop 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; and to ensure health coverage for all people in Alberta, including access to care for COVID-19.
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.
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.
The uninsured population include newly-landed permanent residents, some temporary foreign workers (TFWs), some international students, and undocumented residents. Calgary-based epidemiologist Dr. Mukararram Ali Zaidi said that during a pandemic, we should be able to provide free and accessible healthcare for all through community clinics and hospitals.
COVID-19 has become a public health emergency in Canada. There are deep concerns 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. The group of health care providers and community members, call on all levels of government, health institutions, and public health leaders to act now to ensure care for everyone.
Calgary family physician Dr. Jillian Ratti stressed, “If we don’t treat absolutely everyone, our public health response is weakened and endangers the lives of us all.”
Luciano said 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.”
Luciano said that most of the undocumented and uninsured migrants just fell through the cracks of the immigration system and politics despite all their efforts to comply with the requirements for permanent residence.
Lynn (not her real name) came to Canada in 2010 as a restaurant and bakery manager in Ontario under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. Her contract in Ontario, and later in Alberta were both prematurely ended. 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, she lost her status and 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. Anecdotal figures pegged the numbers of undocumented migrants in Alberta at approximately 70,000.
“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.
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.
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 1,700 confirmed cases, more than 800 of which are active cases, that may reach a million infections, with deaths between 500 and 6,600 by the end of August as the province projected “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.” (Migrante Alberta)