Omicron & Open Windows…

It would be too easy to say Capitalism has the upper hand in matters relating Covid.

But it is true to say that money dictates, in large part, what authorities do and what we don’t do in these Covid times.

In NS today, anyone can walk into any restaurant that’s open, sit down and order food.  In fact, up to twenty can share a table inside.  True anyone who eats “in” must show proof of two vaccinations, but authorities now tell us that two vaccinations are only up to 15% effective against Omicron.  Still it’s something.

Gym closed due to first wave corona virus outbreak. Stock photo

Retail shops are open, as are gyms, yoga studios, nightclubs, bars, dance halls, malls and their food courts.  Casino Nova Scotia is open for business.  True they are open to 50% capacity, and patrons must socially distance plus wear masks.  In malls, only ten people at a time can line up to enter stores.  In bars, dancing is allowed – with masks  on. 

Cinemas suffer a bit more as they are restricted to 25% capacity up to a maximum of 50 people—socially distanced and everyone needs to wear a mask.  There is no eating or drinking treats while in seats; you can only snack in designated areas.

Restaurants and bars can stay open just till 11 pm.

There are more rules, but you get the gist.

Dr Robert Strang, NS’s chief medical office of health, has stressed “self-management”  in his recent briefings

 “We are not going to stop the spread of this variant like we did in other waves. Our goal, now, is to slow it down ….”

Dr Robert Strang

He explained that due to a shortage of PCR tests, only people over age 50 or those with serious conditions could access the tests, and there are virtually no rapid tests available for others.  Since testing is no longer a priority, neither is contact-tracing.

The province has all but eliminated contact-tracing.  If you have Covid (and testing is not readily available), you are supposed to phone your close friends and contacts and let them know.  But the government is not keeping track. As Martha Paynter of Wellness Within points out, “And now, in this fourth wave with Omicron, we don’t have enough human beings to test and analyze results for everyone.” 

Virtually no testing or contact-tracing? What? Haven’t we been through nearly two years of testing and contact-tracing? Shouldn’t we have it perfected by now? Shouldn’t the materials to do it be fully available by now? If all of that testing and contact-tracing in the past was useless, they should tell us. If there are not enough materials now, they should tell us why.

“And now, in this fourth wave with Omicron, we don’t have enough human beings to test and analyze results for everyone.” 

Martha Paynter, RN, Wellness Within

In time, people here could all be infected but it will be treated like an individual illness – not like a public health hazard which rages through the whole community.  What is our Premier’s response? It’s captured in the headline in Thursday’s business section in the Herald, “Retail trending in right direction.”  Business is good, let’s all go along to get along.

True the numbers have gone up.  Tuesday NS had 561 new cases – 430 of them in the Halifax area. On Tuesday in Ontario, there were 8825 new cases.  In terms of population, we have a million people, while Ontario has 14.8 million.  So Ontario’s cases are just about 14.8 times the numbers we have in Nova Scotia.  We are not doing so well after all. 

The Question is Why?

People are asking why, in the first week of December when we first got wind about Omicron, didn’t we do something drastic?

We could have closed restaurants, bars and gyms.  We could have restricted numbers in other public spaces.  We could have asked people to celebrate Christmas next July when the number of Covid cases decline (as they tend to do in summer).  New Year’s eve parties get under way tonight.  Yet the restrictions on gatherings are not more onerous than they were for Christmas.  In bars, and pubs there is a limit of 50% of capacity. There can be up to 20 seated at a table.  And of course there is dancing – as long as you wear a mask. 

Halifax buses display their annual ad about free buses and ferries on New Year’s eve and early morning on New Year’s day.  Why is that? Aren’t we supposed to not gather, to stay home? Why have free transit so people can more easily party-hop?  

X marks the spot for variant Omicron kick-off in NS

Nearly a month ago, the powerful and the relatively powerless in the province excoriated St Francis Xavier University’s decision to hold its X-ring ceremony with 2,000 people in a hall on campus. Celebrants stood and mingled, masks down, drinking and eating. We don’t know the exact case numbers but some say hundreds came down with Omicron. That kicked it off in Nova Scotia.

Public health officials are afraid Omicron will overwhelm hospital facilities.  Already  personnel is thin on the ground.  Some health care workers have symptoms or have Omicron so they are staying home; others are in isolation because their family members have it or have been exposed; others don’t want to work because they are afraid of getting it; some people are not double-vaccinated and thus not allowed to work.  Health officials are in a near panic, what if Covid numbers continue to increase exponentially, and hospitals get swamped with sick people? 

The problem has to do with this government spending money.  Over the past decade, our health care budgets have been pared to the bone.  This despite the fact the Liberal and now the Conservative government in Province House are concerned we’ll run out of beds –especially intensive care beds– in our hospitals.

Take the case of long-term care, a sort of bellwether for healthcare.  There is still a serious need for 1,000-2,000 more long-term beds.  In the 2020-21 budget, there was no money for significant  improvements, no funding increase for staff salaries, or training for retention, or money to improve the quality of residents’ care. The former Liberal government confirmed that each person in long-term care received just over 2 hours per day of personal care or assistance, but the standard is 4.1 hours a day.  The Liberal government – a few months before it was tossed out — said they’d build 236 more beds in long-term care in the Halifax area and improve long-term facilities in some towns around the province. Who knows what happened to the promises after a new government won the election last summer.

New Year, New Budget…

Neither the Liberals nor now the Tories want to remember that 2020-21 provincial budget provided an $81 million corporate tax cut.  In fact, the new Tory government seems to also give long-term care short shrift.  Thursday’s Herald published an op-ed by Wanda Bond and Nan McFadgen, two union officials from CUPE NS who together have more than 45 years of service in long-term care.   They point out that low pay, poor working conditions, budget cuts, working short-staffed is the norm. 

“Since we cannot get a voice at the table with the Nova Scotia government, we will raise our voices here and ask others to raise theirs.”

CUPE health care workers in long-term care (Facebook)

Long-term Care Residents & Staff Still Suffer

If long-term care is still suffering, after half the Covid deaths in Nova Scotia happened in nursing homes and long-term care, what about other areas of health care?

Many workers are not willing to risk their lives — and lives of their families — to work for $17 an hour in nursing homes and long-term care.  That is one reason why long-term care has once again severely restricted visitors and outings for residents. There is not the staff to help or to monitor. And the province doesn’t want the black eye it received in the first Covid outbreak, when it was revealed that long-term care was a death trap for seniors.

Clearly, PCR and Rapid test kits are not available to most.  But despite rising Omicron numbers, the government doesn’t feel the need to hire and train contact-tracers.  If you look at the list of schools in HRM , the government claims all have been inspected fairly recently and have passed the tests for ventilation.   Some schools still are passively ventilated – meaning doors and windows (even in winter) should be left open continuously. Despite the federal government giving NS several millions for upgrades to school ventilation what has really been done?

Still business churns on. And the government is careful to avoid stepping on toes of small and medium business owners.  Big box stores, and bars are the places with most chances of catching Omicron.  And restrictions are limited

It all does come down to money.  How much is the government willing to invest in providing support to citizens during the pandemic?

The economy is sputtering to life with more than a hundred thousand jobs on offer across the country – but many are part time or casual.  Or they are in restaurants, bars and retail which means a dollar or two paid above minimum wage.  More and more people are refusing these jobs which have no sick leave, no opportunity for advancement and no guarantee they will exist in six month’s time.   Greeting the public, or serving them in bars and restaurants is highly dangerous work – even while wearing a mask.  Recently we were told that even 3-ply masks are not enough protection.  But N-95 masks are not widely available and very expensive.  They can’t be reused.  It’s something along with other precautions, the government should be investing in.

Featured Image: New Year Lights, by Chinese artist Fengtao Liu (2000, credit Artpal)

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