Foreign workers cannot be neglected as COVID vaccinations begin

The federal government should adopt a more assertive position in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

When the first batch of vaccines arrived in Canada, Ottawa released recommendations on who should receive the first doses, but the ultimate discretion was left to individual provinces.

Federal recommendations were made to ensure the allocation of a limited supply of the vaccine would go to certain groups earlier than others.

“These recommendations aim to achieve Canada’s pandemic response goal: ‘to minimize serious illness and overall deaths while minimizing societal disruption as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.’ ”

The document goes on to list key populations, starting with those at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. Listed under this section are people with advanced age and high-risk conditions.

This makes sense and it’s tough to argue with Ottawa’s recommendation. Data suggest hospitalization, ICU admissions and death rates from COVID-19 increase with age and among people with certain underlying conditions.

Following this population, the federal government recommends vaccines be given to people likely to transmit COVID-19 to people who are ill or at risk of death, or to workers essential to responding to the pandemic.

Again, it is difficult to argue against health-care workers or caregivers in long-term care facilities being among the first to receive vaccinations.

However, after this the federal guidelines become a bit murky.

People “contributing to the maintenance of other essential services for the functioning of society” should get the vaccine next, according to the feds, but they leave it to the provinces to define who falls into this category.

Ottawa suggests “those whose living or working conditions put them at elevated risk of infection and where infection could have disproportionate consequences” should then receive the vaccine.

This recommendation includes people working in agricultural or meat production facilities, thousands of whom are temporary foreign workers.

There isn’t anything specifically wrong with these recommendations.

Most Canadians would agree high risk individuals should be first to receive the vaccine, and the early rollouts from the provinces have been focused mainly on these people.

But what happens next is where the federal government needs to be more assertive.

Some Conservative politicians — and their allies in provincial governments — suggest Canadians should receive doses of the vaccine before foreign workers for no other apparent reason beyond “we are Canadians.”

This nativist thinking is not helpful and further perpetuates perceptions that Canada’s temporary foreign worker program is rooted in racism. Thousands of temporary foreign workers have been infected with COVID-19, and some have died from it.

Poor socioeconomic living and working conditions for these workers means they are more vulnerable to infection. They also often face increased barriers to accessing health care.

Provinces, such as Alberta, are currently still deciding when these workers will receive the limited doses of vaccines, but early indications suggest they won’t receive vaccines until at least April.

The conditions of seasonal agricultural workers and temporary foreign workers should dictate they receive the vaccine sooner than most, and the federal government should step in to ensure this happens.

The federal government has a moral obligation to ensure provinces are protecting these workers, but it also makes sense.

Already some countries, like Mexico, have suspended sending workers to Canada because of health concerns.

Continued failures to protect foreign workers will harm Canada’s international reputation, potentially making it harder to access foreign labour.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier Farm Media’s Ottawa correspondent. Reach out to him by emailing dfraser@farmmedia.com.

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