By Wayne Arthurson,
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Albertans considered our frontline workers as heroes: first responders, transit drivers and other public services workers, retail clerks in grocery, hardware, and other stores selling essential goods. Even food and other delivery drivers won applause for their service.
But perhaps no group of workers has seen the outpouring of praise and gratitude that healthcare workers have received, especially those working in facilities and areas where people were being treated for COVID-19.
“One thing I have seen, despite the Alberta’s government misfire on their pandemic response, is nurses, doctors, and our AUPE workers all working together to give Albertans the best treatment they can,” says AUPE Vice-President Bonnie Gostola. “No healthcare system can go forward without the support staff who make it possible for doctors and RNs to work in a clean environment, to sterilize things, to provide comfort for the people in the hospital who are scared to death. Not much is said about that, but I observed firsthand our members who are a calming influence on patients. And that can’t be dismissed, it’s all part of holistic health.”
In April of 2020, eight Edmonton hospital foundations launched the Foundations of Gratitude campaign and hashtag to honour all healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. Alberta Health Services (AHS) CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said that that the community was behind them. Covenant Healthcare CEO Patrick Dumelie said that the campaign showed “Albertans are grateful, and their support and encouragement is evident in actions like these.”
But while the UCP, AHS and Covenant Health, at first called these workers healthcare heroes, they soon began treating them as zeroes. On October 12, 2020, Health Minister Shandro and AHS CEO Dr. Yiu announced plans to slash over 11,000 AHS frontline jobs to further privatize Alberta’s healthcare system. The next day, without specifying the number of jobs, Covenant Health agreed.
No healthcare system can go forward without the support staff who make it possible for doctors and RNs to work in a clean environment, to sterilize things, to provide comfort for the people in the hospital who are scared to death. Not much is said about that, but I observed firsthand our members who are a calming influence on patients. And that can’t be dismissed, it’s all part of holistic health.
To add insult to injury, Health Minister Tyler Shandro claimed he’d cut no “clinical frontline” jobs, intimating that only doctors and registered nurses were frontline healthcare workers, and any other clinical and support workers such as AUPE’s Nursing Care and GSS workers, were less valuable. Many UCP issue managers went on a social media blitz dismissing the importance of these workers to the healthcare system.
“That’s absolute rubbish,” says Gostola. “It’s extremely insulting because it’s often the folks behind the scenes who are changing the linens in the hospital or sorting out folks when they come up to the counter. There’s a lot of hands on work, at the direction of a doctor or a nurse, but they’re the ones moving people around. When someone has COVID and someone has to come in and change their linen in the hospital every day, that’s pretty in your face frontline stuff. It’s not any more real than that.”
“I don’t think that many have the general idea what it takes to get up every morning and go to work and realize there’s a possibility you might bring something home,” says an anonymous AUPE member who works in an Alberta hospital. To protect this worker, we’ll call them M. “And to do that day after day after day. And not only have to deal with Covid but seeing your co-workers exhausted and you know they’re getting beat, you know they’re getting tired.”.
Because of M’s job, they are on the floor of the hospital every shift and sees all types of healthcare workers, including the ones Shandro dismissed as not being frontline workers. Even before the pandemic, they were integral to the operation of the hospital. But now with Covid, they are even more vital.
“I see my co-workers who work in nutrition services who have to go onto the floor every day non-stop because patients have to be fed,” M says. “And laundry services. Even before the crisis, everything that’s disgusting about a hospital lands in laundry, lands on their plate and they have to deal with it. It’s more difficult now.”
"You can see the exhaustion in house-keeping, and they are at the breaking point because no one’s replacing anybody,” M adds. “And the porters have had people in their department who have contracted Covid. These people go out on a limb to help patients get to one part of the hospital to the next for their appointments or X-rays or anything else like that. And it’s frustrating to know that some of them are contracting COVID.”
“To see these people putting themselves on the line for what little they make an hour… it’s hard,” adds M.
AHS figures show that as of December 2, 2020, 634 healthcare workers were active COVID-19 cases, bringing to total number of healthcare workers who have tested positive to 4,200. There are no numbers stating how many frontline healthcare workers who’ve had to isolate at home because of contact with these cases. AHS has never specified the jobs of these affected healthcare workers. And there are 18 acute care facilities in Alberta, including every single hospital in Calgary and Edmonton, experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak.
What Kenney, Shandro, the UCP and their issue managers are doing is typical of governments of this ilk, says Gostola.
“By taking words, turning them around to cast themselves in a good light and others in a bad one, you see this with very far right-wing governments around the world and in the past,” says Gostola. “They use these words that try to take the edge off of how horrible things are. They presume the average person doesn’t have the intelligence to figure out what’s going on, but people see through that now.
“The people in communities across the province know who these workers are because they are their next door neighbours, they are their friends, their daughters, their sons, their family,” adds Gostola. “Albertans know exactly who is on the frontlines.”
“These people are there every day, no matter rain or shine, they are coming to work,” says M. “Everybody at the hospital, every frontline worker, not only do they care about their patients, but they also want to be able to go home and not bring something that could affect one of their family members. But they still get up, they still go and they do it, because we care about our patients, we care about our families and our communities.”