Health worker deaths from COVID-19 not only a matter of numbers

By Jade Sim, Neeru Gupta and Ivy Bourgeault

Health workers across the country and around the world are on the front lines of the novel coronavirus pandemic. So, it is curious why it has taken more than six months to have any official or authoritative numbers of the deaths of health care workers from COVID-19 in Canada.

The World Health Organization noted early on in the pandemic that a “human tragedy” was unfolding with thousands of health workers being exposed and becoming sick. However, information on deaths among health workers in Canada were hard to come by. Recent data released by the Canadian Institute of Health Information are our first official Canadian numbers, but there remains some troubling variability.

According to data CIHI gathered from federal, provincial and territorial public health agency or ministry of health websites, 12 health workers have died from COVID in Canada. These are broken down by province: nine in Ontario and three in Quebec – but not by sector.

Yet, according to Public Health Ontario, there were 13 reported deaths amongst health care workers in Ontario as of June 22, 2020 — and in a more recent release, eight of these deaths were noted to be health care workers in long term care. Across Canada, the Canadian Federation of Nurses’ Unions has gathered information concerning 19 health care workers who have died as of July 14th.

This is not just a data issue, but a matter of who counts as a ‘health worker’ and how much they count to the government agencies tasked with safeguarding them. These are also more than just numbers to the countless family members, colleagues and communities affected by the deaths of these critical workers.

The Canadian Health Workforce Network began to assemble a memorial of the Canadian health workers who have died from COVID-19 to put faces to the numbers and remember their sacrifice.  The memorial is incomplete, just like the sources of Canadian data.

One thing that has become clear, however, is the over-representation of racialized health workers among the list, particularly in the long-term care sector. Through our independent compilation, we have identified that of the 12 deceased health workers who provided long-term care services, eight belonged to racialized groups.

This is not a coincidence.

Racialized and immigrant Canadians are often funneled towards working in the most precarious parts of the health system resulting in their overrepresentation in sectors like long-term care. In Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, over 70 per cent of care workers are immigrants, and 87 per cent are women.

These jobs have disproportionately lower rates of pay, less secure full-time positions and fewer sick days than in acute and primary care. These issues have contributed directly to the spread of COVID-19 with estimates that long-term care staff represent 10 per cent of all those who have been infected.

The vulnerabilities of long-term care workers are closely intertwined with the vulnerability of long-term care residents. When a vulnerable population cares for a vulnerable population, the results can be deadly.

And their vulnerability does not stop at work. Racialized health workers move from high-risk work to high-risk home environments. More diverse neighborhoods have 3.2x more COVID-19 cases according to Public Health Ontario.

Other countries collect better race-based data on COVID-19 cases. Data from the United States reveals that black people are dying at 3.6x the rate of white people. Although provinces like Ontario previously committed to collecting data to identify systemic racism, there is still no systematic and coordinated collection of socio-demographic data on COVID-19 beyond age and sex.

The lack of basic demographic data on the most important resources of our health system, our health workers, is unconscionable, especially during a pandemic. Deaths among health workers should not be forgotten.

Jade Sim is an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa.  Neeru Gupta is a Professor at the University of New Brunswick. Ivy Bourgeault is a Chair in Gender, Diversity and the Professions at the University of Ottawa. They are all members of the Canadian Health Workforce Network.