Cockroach and bug infestations, seniors calling out repeatedly for help, rotting food, COVID-19-infected patients put in the same room with those who are healthy, missed meals, seniors left in soiled diapers and linens - these are just some of the things Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel have seen while helping in five long-term care homes in Ontario.
The military, called in to help at some of Ontario's worst-hit long-term care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, confirmed what caregivers and family members of those in the homes have been saying for years: there is a crisis in how we care for our seniors.
The CAF report details shocking and disturbing conditions in the homes. It also highlighted serious concerns about shortages of personal protective equipment, staffing shortages, and failures to follow basic procedures to keep both residents and staff safe.
The report notes that the military's observations are "sufficiently serious in nature to warrant them also to be shared with the Province of Ontario" who has jurisdiction over the homes.
Approximately 1,650 trained military personnel were deployed in response to provincial calls for help to care for residents in the homes in Ontario and Quebec, where homes are thought to be in even worse shape.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford expressed shock and surprise at the report's contents.
But unions representing long-term care workers were quick to point out that the Ford government, and governments before it, shouldn't be surprised because they have been made aware of the serious problems within long-term care for years – they just chose not to listen.
As we have highlighted before, the crisis in long-term care is not new. Those who work in these homes have been very vocal that the crisis was there long before COVID-19 came to Canada, allowed to spread and entrench in similar ways in homes across Canada as a result of funding cuts, increased privatization, government neglect and indifference. Political parties of all stripes at both provincial and federal levels have been complicit in allowing this to happen.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose government was the first to receive the report, said, "I was sad. I was shocked. I was disappointed. I was angry. I believe we are talking about a situation that clearly is a reality associated with COVID-19 but has also existed for quite some time. We need to take action as a country."
Jane Philpott, a physician and the former federal Minister of Health, says the country must do a serious review – she says a national public inquiry must be carried out.
"The military has put out a report which has shaken us to our core, and hopefully this will be the one that will trigger, finally, I believe, a full national inquiry — not just a localized, regional look. But this is something that every order of government, every political party, every health-care administrator in the country needs to take some responsibility for," Philpott told CTV.
When asked why it took the military to blow the whistle when Ontario has 175 inspectors for 626 long-term care homes, according to the Toronto Star the premier appeared to fault his government's own inspection regime.
Questions have been raised about the government's management of inspections in Ontario's long-term care homes. In April, CBC reported that only nine out of 626 homes in Ontario actually received inspections that weren't in response to complaints. "CBC News reviewed inspection reports from the last five years for all long-term care homes in the province and found that while most received a comprehensive resident quality inspection in 2015, 2016 and 2017, the number dropped to just over half in 2018 and just nine last year."
And as many have pointed out, it is a sad irony that it took the traditionally male-dominated military to get the attention of politicians when workers in the homes, most often racialized women, have been raising the same concerns for years.
Now that politicians are finally listening to the long-term care home workers and families of residents sounding the alarm, and with more than 80 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths attributed to long-term care homes, it's time to get on with swift, coordinated action between the federal and provincial governments. Governments must work together to find a lasting solution to this crisis – a solution that ensures the health, care and dignity of seniors in all long-term care homes.