April 28 marked Canada’s National Day of Mourning. Proposed by union members and officially recognized in 1990, this national observance commemorates workers who have been killed or injured on the job. The Canadian flag flies at half-staff on all government buildings to recognize these losses.

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This article was published 1/5/2020 (787 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

April 28 marked Canada’s National Day of Mourning. Proposed by union members and officially recognized in 1990, this national observance commemorates workers who have been killed or injured on the job. The Canadian flag flies at half-staff on all government buildings to recognize these losses.

This occasion was particularly important in 2020, because the National Day of Mourning fell right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. Organizers emphasized the ongoing sacrifices of front-line health-care workers during the pandemic.

Once the coronavirus had breached Canada’s unguarded borders, governments mandated social distancing and shut both schools and businesses in the hope that doing so would prevent our health-care system from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. But doctors, nurses and other health-care workers were always going to be more exposed — and thus at greater risk of infection — than other Canadians.

That’s turned out to be true. Up-to-date data are difficult to find, given how quickly the situation is changing, but by now it is clear that hundreds of Canadian health-care workers have been exposed to and infected with the virus. Analysis published at the beginning of April found that just under 10 per cent of Ontario’s confirmed COVID-19 cases were among doctors, nurses, paramedics, support workers, care home staff and others in the health-care sector.

This tracks with the experience of countries that grappled with the coronavirus before Canada. At least 3,300 health-care workers have been infected in China (like all other numbers related to the virus that are reported by the Chinese government, that is likely lower than is really the case). In Spain, roughly 14 per cent of those infected have been workers from the health-care sector.

Canadians know the heightened risk health-care workers confront and have struggled to find ways to express their appreciation. In a densely populated Vancouver neighbourhood, for example, residents stand on their decks to cheer and bang pots and pans at 7 p.m. to support health-care workers during shift change at a nearby hospital.

Concern for the welfare of health-care workers has also informed outrage over apparent shortages of protective personal equipment (PPE) during the pandemic in Canada. On the same day that it was reported that Ontario health-care workers were asked to ration their PPE during shifts, it was also reported that the Canadian government had donated 16 tonnes of PPE to the Chinese government in January.

Why, it was asked, would the government give away precious equipment when it would inevitably be needed by Canadian health-care workers in the near future?

Indeed, concern for health-care workers, particularly related to PPE, has been prominent throughout the pandemic in Canada. U.S. President Donald Trump provoked anger when he threatened to block the export of N95 masks to Canada. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney earned headlines by donating a portion of Alberta’s PPE stockpile to other provinces that were experiencing shortages. The Canadian government has continued to struggle to procure PPE for Canada medical staff, particularly from China.

Indeed, Toronto recently recalled more than 65,000 faulty surgical masks imported from China, and the possibility that the caregivers using them were exposed to the coronavirus as a result is being investigated.

Underlying all this is an uneasy awareness that health-care workers are at risk while at their jobs, and a concern for their welfare.

Health-care workers have been prominent political actors during the pandemic as well. This was most notably the case in Hong Kong. In February, thousands of hospital staff in Hong Kong joined a strike that was designed to pressure the government to close the border to travellers arriving from mainland China in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Residents of Hong Kong were (rightly, as it turned out) wary of claims from the Chinese government and the World Health Organization that, for example, the virus could not be spread between humans. But the Hong Kong government hesitated to fully shut down the border, lest it anger Beijing.

Nevertheless, the threat of an escalating strike forced further border restrictions. Now, Hong Kong is considered a COVID-19 success story, having avoided the explosive growth that has overwhelmed medical systems in countries such as Italy. Early travel restrictions played a role in slowing the coronavirus, and those restrictions would have been much weaker without the actions taken by Hong Kong’s health-care workers.

Whether working in the emergency room to save lives or on the picket line to bring about changes designed to protect us, health-care workers all deserve our gratitude.

Royce Koop is head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.