System places little value on disabled lives
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The juxtaposition of stories outlining Sathya Kovac’s medially assisted death and Dr. Brent Roussin’s pay bump to $634,301 for a year was obscene. Yet, that’s what greeted me on Tuesday morning when I grabbed my Free Press out of the mailbox.
Sathya Kovac, 44, chose an assisted death because of ongoing problems accessing adequate provincial health care that would allow her to stay in her home while she lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This progressive nervous system disease — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — is ultimately fatal, but Kovac’s death via the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) program was untimely.
In an interview she gave to Free Press reporter Kevin Rollason, Kovac said, “I would have had more time if I had more help.” She died Monday.
The support provided by health-care aides from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority fell short. Kovac was expected to cover that shortfall from the $1,300 she received monthly from CPP and disability.
Meanwhile, Manitoba’s chief public health officer was given a pay hike between April 2021 and March 2022 while he steered the province through COVID-19. According to provincial public account records, Roussin’s wages went up by 47 per cent compared to the 2020-21 fiscal year. His pay was more than $234,300 higher than when he was originally hired in 2019.
The message seems clear: disabled lives don’t have much value. Imagine just how many more years Kovac could have gained with an additional $234,300.
This is not what medically assisted dying was supposed to be. It wasn’t supposed to be a way out for disabled people who are tired of trying to access programs and support to live. It wasn’t supposed to be a way for governments to abdicate responsibility for ensuring disabled can live a full life. Yet here we are.
Disability activists have warned that this was going to happen. Changes were made to the original assisted-dying bill in 2020 with Bill C-7, which removed a requirement that a patient’s natural death be “reasonably foreseeable.” This was the result of a September 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling that deemed parts of the federal and provincial laws on assisted dying unconstitutional.
It found that the original act was too restrictive. After the change, the number of medically assisted deaths went up by 34 per cent in 2020, according to Health Canada data.
Now that those restrictions have been eased, there have been a number of instances in which disabled persons have participated in MAiD largely because of exhaustion from program failures, rather than for reasons directly related to disease.
A 51-year-old Toronto woman died in February using MAiD after failing to find affordable housing free of cigarette smoke and cleaning products that aggravated her chemical sensitivities. Another woman is now applying for MAiD because she’s destitute as a result of long COVID-19 and is unlikely able to get enough financial support to live in Toronto’s pricey real estate market.
In 2020, Jeff Preston, a disability studies professor at King’s University College, warned this was going to happen. He told CBC: “Our government’s efforts, particularly over the last few years, have been largely pushing forward on providing options to die, as opposed to actually working to make things better and easier and more functional for disabled people.”
But you can’t fix ableism. In Quebec during COVID-19, there were concerns that treatment in intensive care would be denied to those who have disabilities because of a protocol that left discretionary power to physicians in charge of evaluations. In other words, people with disabilities are viewed by the medical community as having a low quality of life and thus, not worth saving.
And when you have governments that are consistently focused on saving money and lowering taxes, ensuring disabled persons have any type of quality of life becomes non-negotiable.
Here in Manitoba, provincial Health Minister Audrey Gordon has said her government is considering changes to the home-care program. At this point, that sounds a lot like “thoughts and prayers.”
Sathya Kovac deserved better than this from the province and the WRHA. Her family and friends deserved better. She should have had more time, and I sincerely hope she is experiencing the final wish written shortly before her death: “I hope there is sun and tea and peace where I go or something even better.”
Shannon Sampert is the former politics and perspectives editor at the Winnipeg Free Press and a communications consultant.