Alberta Politics
Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw at yesterday’s COVID-19 briefing in Edmonton (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

Hard to believe keeping meatpacking and oilsands plants running hasn’t contributed to COVID-19 spread

Posted on April 21, 2020, 2:19 am
8 mins

If you listened carefully to yesterday’s COVID-19 briefing in Edmonton, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion the Kenney Government’s reluctance to regulate certain industries has contributed to the spread of the disease, and not just inside this province.

Particularly interesting was Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw’s carefully worded description of how the serious COVID-19 outbreak at the Cargill Inc. meatpacking plant in High River may have impacted another profitable corporate business that relies on immigrant labour willing to endure tough, low-wage, precarious work — long-term care.

Premier Jason Kenney at the same event (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

Dr. Hinshaw noted how the connections between communal living and carpooling among extended family groups where some members worked at the Cargill slaughterhouse and the others in long-term care facilities may help to explain the intensity of the outbreak in the town 60 kilometres south of Calgary. That, in turn, has contributed to the high rate of infection in Alberta Health Service’s Calgary Zone compared with other parts of the province.

“There are 360 cases in workers from that plant related to that outbreak,” she told the briefing. “But there has also been spread in the community beyond these workers, the 484 total cases linked to that outbreak. Not all of these cases are people who work at that plant.” One plant worker has died.

She explained: “There’s households where people simply don’t have the space to self-isolate if they’re a case, or if they’re a close contact.” Evidence, arguably, that our era and province is not so far from the days of working-class tenements as we imagined. “It was very difficult for people to self-isolate in ways that kept spread from others.”

Dr. Hinshaw also noted AHS has also seen community spread in Brooks, home of JBS SA’s large meatpacking plant in southeastern Alberta. “Brooks has some similar challenges with households that have many people living in those households, where there can be difficulty for people to stay away from others if they are sick.”

Sixty-seven cases have been reported in the Brazilian-owned JBS plant and people in Brooks are saying there are now about 115 cases in the town.

It is easy to infer from this a symbiotic relationship between industries that thrive in a neoliberal economy — in this case industrial-scale meatpacking and privatized health care — both drawing workers from vulnerable immigrant communities whose members have little choice but to work for low pay in harsh conditions.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

Moreover, it’s hard to believe the Kenney Government’s determination to keep the plant open as long as possible didn’t contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the region.

When Cargill workers and their union begged the government to close the operation until the threat of COVID-19 was under control, the government instead organized a telephone town hall last weekend to assure them they were safe. Employees have accused the company of trying to pressure them to return to work and ignoring physical distancing protocols on the crowded meatpacking floor.

Yesterday, Cargill bowed to the inevitable and temporarily closed the plant, which slaughters about 4,500 head of cattle daily and employs about 2,000 people. Cargill is the largest privately held company based in the United States, with annual revenue of more than $115 billion US.

Meanwhile, in long-term care, Alberta government policies have long assured a big role for the private sector with its characteristic understaffing and low pay. The UCP came to office promising more of the same.

The government’s recognition it had to step in during the coronavirus emergency and take over operation of some private care homes, not to mention to protect the jobs and benefits of health care workers suddenly restricted to working at a single site, is a tacit admission of the failure from a health care perspective of low-wage, low-job-security, low-staffing policies.

AHS Chief Procurement Officer Jitendra Prasad (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

Similarly, the government’s resistance to closing oilsands camps in an effort to keep the mines running come what may — including, apparently, prices in so low you have to pay people to haul away your unwanted crude — also seems to be contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Hinshaw said 20 cases have been linked to the Kearl Lake oilsands camp north of Fort McMurray, with eight of the infected workers returning to homes in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

Yesterday’s news conference also cast some light on how Premier Jason Kenney’s giveaway of 750,000 N95 medical masks to other provinces in a grandstand bid to build social license for more pipelines has turned into a public relations nightmare for the UCP.

Large numbers of front-line workers have been complaining on social media about the poor fit, bad smell and lack of availability of the procedural masks they are now being supplied by AHS, and journalists have started to take note.

The original plan for the briefing, including a cameo appearance by the premier, seemed to be to explain and excuse the personal-protective-equipment procurement fiasco, although Mr. Kenney soon changed topic and spent much of his time demanding Ottawa give more money to the oil industry.

“All of our PPE meets the required safety standards and all of products are tested, prior to being ordered, and then are inspected again prior to being supplied by AHS to our sites,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro told the briefing.

AHS chief procurement officer Jitendra Prasad explained the smelly masks as the result of a new packing process intended to ensure they contain no coronaviruses. He said AHS is working with the manufacturer to insure better fitting masks.

He assured unhappy health care workers, “we’d like to work with you to resolve the issues that you may have, and also assure you that the products that you’re used to, they have not been sent away. They have not been donated to other provinces. They are actually right here in Alberta, and what we are using, or what we have obtained from our alternate supplies, is what has been sent out.”

13 Comments to: Hard to believe keeping meatpacking and oilsands plants running hasn’t contributed to COVID-19 spread

  1. Alex Polkovsky

    April 21st, 2020

    Here we are. Now this province needs to transition oilfield workers in the job of disassembling abandoned wells and pipelines then recovering the land. Land reclamation can feed into the larger effort on the shoulders of the provincial and territorial governments, along with Ottawa, to rewild the Arctic.

    https://bit.ly/re-wild-the-arctic
    http://bit.ly/re-wild-the-sea

    And the know Albertans who will reflexively ask, Who is going to pay for that? A prosperous future will pay for that, we just need to make the future prosperous.

    Reply
  2. tom in ontario

    April 21st, 2020

    To show his dedication and confidence in the safety equipment his Ministry of Health is responsible for, Mr. Shandro and his entrepreneurial wife could don the PPE and volunteer a few shifts in the ICU wards at Foothills. Your premier, good sport that he is, could join them.

    Reply
  3. Abs

    April 21st, 2020

    Ah, yes, the photo op by Jason Kenney at his favorite photo op airport, supposedly helping workers do their job of loading flats of plastic-wrapped masks onto a plane? A mirage, I tell you. Those were not 750,000 quality masks, purloined from hospital supplies for political gain, being loaded. It was nothing, nothing!

    And the real quality masks are still in the warehouse, I tells ya, but you just can’t have any of them. And if thousands of health workers need a new fit test because this must be done for each supplier and each style of mask, and there is no time and not enough of the chemical needed to do this, well, tough. Just keep calm and pathogen on, okay? And stop complaining. Do you think the workers at meat packing plants complain…ergh. At least you have jobs!!!

    Reply
  4. Bob Raynard

    April 21st, 2020

    Given that the meat packing plant will now be closing for a couple of weeks, it would appear that when the union asked for its closure a couple of weeks ago it would have been the smart thing to do.

    See how smart I am? Using my laser-like hindsight I can see what should have been done. I wonder how the UCPers feel having the same standard applied to them that Jason Kenney used when he criticized Dr. Tam.

    Reply
  5. Public Servant

    April 21st, 2020

    Kenney has always viewed workers and especially temporary foreign workers as existing only to enrich his wealthy backers.

    Dreeshan, Shandy and whatever puppet minister is in charge of OH&S should all be facing criminal negligence charges for the Cargill tragedy. They were warned 2 weeks ago about exactly what came to pass, but because the warnings came from workers and unionized workers at that, they were dismissed out of hand. This government’s overt hostility towards workers has finally killed someone.

    Reply
  6. Anthony

    April 21st, 2020

    I took this from a daily newspaper in the BC interior. Sums it up
    With seven positive tests for COVID-19 traced to people in B.C. who have returned from the Kearl Lake oil sands project in northern Alberta, the B.C. government has issued an order of self-isolation for anyone who has returned to B.C. from that mine and processing plant.

    Reply
  7. J.E. Molnar

    April 21st, 2020

    Political smoke and mirrors won’t save Alberta from COVID-19 infections.

    Instead of puffball questions from Postmedia scribblers like Rick Bell, any journalist worth his/her salt would ask the question of Dr. Hinshaw that really matters: “What metric would you use to close or curtail a business in Alberta, such as a packing plant or oil sands operation — would it be the number of COVID-19 infections or the number of deaths?”

    Reply
  8. Murphy

    April 21st, 2020

    Oh, Kons! But what else can one expect in a society in which the predominant religion is “entrepreneurism”? I prefer the term “hustler”, as it more accurately describes living to find an “angle”. Exploitation of workers, in particular immigrant workers, is a cornerstone of the Alberta Advantage. I spent a few years working for an “entrepreneur” who used to bring in Mexicans under the TFW anti-labour program. These fellows were officially “agriculture workers”, but they were used anywhere there was a labour shortage within the company. They all lived in housing owned by the company owners, and were governed by a set of rules that were entirely illegal, and they had no understanding of their rights as workers. My boss took a year off to sail the Pacific, curiously stopping in off-shore banking haven, Vanuatu, home to Paul Martin’s Canadian Steamship lines, and upon his triumphant return, announced to us that “wages are killing us”. In the same industry a rival company had a number of Pacific Islanders brought in under TFW, and these guys lived on company property in tents.
    Covidmania is proving to be just one more thing that the Use Car Party cannot manage in an optically pleasing way, so Tailgunner Jay could be reduced to scrambling for some kind of lobbying function in Ottawa, but the economic tsunami that is coming as a result of the panic is going to foster a neoliberal paradise/nightmare, and it will be very stark here in Oklahoma North, no matter which placeholder is Premier.

    Reply
  9. Athabascan

    April 21st, 2020

    Is it just me, or is Dr. Hinshaw more of a politician than a trusted medical expert?

    What of our illustrious Labour Minister? Doesn’t he care about worker safety? Isn’t that a labour issue?

    We are on our own folks – FOR THE NEXT 3 YEARS NO LESS!

    Reply
  10. Keith McClary

    April 21st, 2020

    “workers suddenly restricted to working at a single site”

    Does Alberta law incentivize employers to employ people part-time, resulting in people having multiple jobs?

    Reply
  11. Just Me

    April 21st, 2020

    It amuses me that the two industries that Alberta swears are the only reason that Canada even exists may cause the widest spread of the Covid Pandemic. And they are essential, of course, and cannot be shuttered. Well, until Cargill turned into a disaster.

    Rural Alberta gets slammed for something only those urban lefties are supposed to get. Tough luck.

    Reply
  12. Albertan

    April 21st, 2020

    With regard to the workers at Cargill and health care front line workers, it appears to be a negative situation of ‘plebeyos,’despite loud protestations.
    The Kenney UCP, not dealing with COVID-19 sooner at the meat packing plants and issuing substandard masks to the health care front line, is turning out to be an appearing unconscionable mess. Again, the Kenney UCP would be well advised to take a hard look at how Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand handled their COVID crisis, giving the Western world a master class on decent leadership.
    No wonder calls are being made for an independent review of what has happened at the Cargill meat packing plant.

    Reply
  13. Just Me

    April 22nd, 2020

    I have been listening to Peter Downing on going assault on the “Globalist plot” known as Covid-19. This is, according to Downing, an orchestrated attack on the free-market and democracy in Alberta. The usual suspects — the UN, the WHO, Justin Trudeau, environmentalists, and others — are attacking free-thinking, freedom-loving, and God-fearing Albertans. Downing sends an message to President Trump, calling on his wisdom and courage to protect his allies in Alberta.

    Okay, the crazy is spectacular. But what is even more interesting is Downing saying that he’s “sick and tired of these lady doctors” tell us what to do.

    I noticed that Kenney latched hard onto that one it is attack on Dr. Tam. And glancing at the UCP’s FB feed, the usually stream of misogyny continues as a vicious torrent.

    Reply

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