Omicron Panic – Governments stress Individual vs Community response

I just read a Tweet “I don’t think it’s okay to throw the kids back [in school] and not ask something of the government.”

Makes sense: what are we asking of our federal and provincial governments in this the 22nd month of Covid?

A better question is what have governments actually given us?
Well, we are awash in vaccine. There is enough for every Canadian to get a first and second shot, a booster third shot, and probably a fourth shot as well.

And right now, that seems like the only line of defense our governments can come up with.

Both layers of government have done the following to make things worse:

  • stopped warning about Covid breakouts in schools and public spaces.
  • stopped contact-tracing about five months ago.
  • stopped open-access testing centres to encourage people – especially those who worked in public-facing jobs — to get tested.
  • refused to provide free (or cheap) N95 masks, this despite the fact all over the world N95 or KN95 masks are considered the gold standard for masks
  • stopped CERB, back in Oct. 2021. The $300 a week financial aid was granted to millions of Canadians whose hours of work were cut or their workplaces closed either temporarily or permanently
  • stopped the Canadian Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) in November ’21. The CRSB paid $500 a week for up to four weeks to working people who contracted Covid and had to stay home.

In December 2021, Ottawa passed legislation to provide paid sick leave for the first three days of sickness plus one day for every month employed to a maximum of 10 days with pay. Only a person who works in the federal jurisdiction (such as in a bank, or an airline or in telecommunications) is eligible to receive this.

In NS, the government launched its four days of paid sick leave on January 10, but it is only in effect until Mar. 31. A person who cannot work because of Covid can claim up to $20 per hour, to a maximum of $640 (or 32 hours of work!).

Whatever happened to extra pay for “essential workers”?

Governments stopped designating bus drivers, daycare workers, grocery staff, care workers in nursing homes and others “essential workers.” The effect was to greenlight supermarkets, drug stores, and nursing homes to rescind the $2 an hour premiums or bonuses paid to low-wage essential workers last spring. Some banks paid clerks and tellers $1000 a month in April, May and June to reward branch staff in public facing jobs during the first wave of the pandemic.

Other than a few paid sick days, what are the governments doing today to help? What is their advice in the face of the newer Omicron variant, which is now peaking throughout the country?

Our governments’ prescriptions:

First piece of advice: get the booster. 77% of Canadians have had two immunizations. Go and get your third.
Second piece of advice: if you have a cold, assume it’s Omicron. Stay home, drink warm liquids and take Tylenol if your symptoms worsen. Only if you can’t catch your breath or feel super- sick should you go to the hospital.
Third piece of advice: There is no testing except for those who are considerably older or at high risk. So if you think you may have Covid – stay home. Don’t go to hospital emergency unless you have a true emergency.
Fourth piece of advice: The emergency wards are filling up quickly. 600 NS health workers have been redeployed or are at home sick or self-isolating. Dr Kirk Magee who oversees emergency care at Halifax hospitals said the system “is stretched to its limit.”

“The emergency department is like a glass of red wine on a white table, linen cloth,” he said. “And when you’re close to the brim, even one more drop makes a terrible mess — and we really are close to the brim.”

Dr Kirk Magee

Community Response versus Individual Responsibility

How did the government’s earlier community-focused response of 2020 “we’re all in this together” descend to 2022’s “you have to self-manage Covid.” It’s times like these when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement sums it up,

“… who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families… “

Margaret Thatcher, former British MP

When the vaccines rolled out about a year ago, the government pushed vaccination as the key to beating Covid. At the time, more than half of Canadians who died from Covid lived in nursing homes or institutions. There was a demand by residents and their families to make nursing homes safer for residents. Provincial governments loosened their purse strings to a point. In NS, some institutions divided shared rooms, to create more single rooms. But private bathrooms – also seen as a necessity – were harder to create, due to space issues and expense.

Military recruits earn about $60K; long-term care assistants earn less than $40K per year

Governments could have responded better to the problem of low pay for staff – which has existed in long-term care for ages. Increasing wages might have kept staff working at one facility, rather than having to work at second and even third jobs elsewhere to make ends meet. The low wages combined with limited hours of work became a problem at the height of Covid. This is still a problem – and governments tend to ignore the situation. Except now, various provinces are pleading with the federal government to send in members of the Canadian military to take up the positions left vacant by staff ill or isolating with Omicron, or those who just quit. Interestingly, military people, starting with recruits through the non-commissioned ranks, earn far higher salaries than most care workers. In fact recruits earn at least $60,000 a year , while personal care workers and care assistants earn less than $40,000 per year.

Military goes into long-term care (Toronto Sun); portrait of care worker (CBC.CA)

What is the evidence of other community responses to Covid?

This winter has seen more people than ever having to live in tents because they have no safe, affordable place to live. Sometimes social services will put the homeless in hotels, but their hotel stays rarely last more than a few weeks or a couple of months. They seldom last the whole of winter.

40 shelter beds shut down on Dec.31 …

In Halifax. 40 beds were lost when the board and executive director of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre decided to close their shelter at the end of December. The Centre cited cultural disagreements with staff and shelter users. Many believe the actual reason for the closure was because the staff had applied for union representation — and management opposed it. The closure of a 40 bed shelter, meant 20 employees lost their jobs, and the homeless who relied on the shelter were back on the streets.

Clockwise from left: Advocates rally to save Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre’s homeless shelter (Globalnews.ca); credit: Chris Farber/UNICEF/Gettyimages; 8×8 foot shelter supplied by Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth (Atlantic.ctvnews.ca); After Halifax Explosion, homeless queue for food and shelter in 1917-18 at the Armouries; 250 packaged meals at Souls Harbour Rescue Mission/Facebook

With Omicron’s exponential spread, there is no safe place homeless people with symptoms can go to recover and/or isolate. The Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth presently have 15 people occupying single person sheds the church has provided on various church properties. There is heat in these 8 x 8 foot structures, a bed, and a shelf, storage space but no water and no toilet.

“…a safe, warm space to sleep in and ride out the winter. Some people come from tents.”

John Stevens’ comment about the need for the 8 x 8 foot wooden shelters erected by the Catholic churches

Occupants have to go outside to use a portapotty placed nearby. As for getting a shower, some arrangements have been made either inside the church, or in a community centre nearby. As for hot food –residents are on their own. They are free to trudge – as many homeless must do – from church basement to community hall to get a meal, or to pick up a cold, wrapped sandwich or snack to take with them. This is how many homeless get food every day – whatever the weather.

This is a “menu” of sorts of where people could pick up free food in November, in Halifax.

John Stevens, project manager for the Archdiocese, says of the shelter, it’s “A safe, warm space to sleep in and ride out the winter. Some people come from tents.” Stevens stressed the shelters are not “a supervised living situation” – like a dorm, it’s not a 24 hour service. Residents “have to be okay in that environment, have some skills.”

Most of the residents are men, but at least one is a woman. Women have the extra burdens of children, and their monthly periods. At that time of the month, it’s also prohibitive for women to have to use a portapotty, let alone the fact that there is no easy access to running water.

Stevens, in a phone interview, stressed that the Catholic Archdiocese, in co-operation with various service providers, would select the homeless who could manage without direct support. Again, it comes down to the individuals, who gets what.

We have a housing crisis across Canada. As of Jan. 4, 2022, Halifax had 416 people who were homeless according to AHANS (the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia) and thousands more living squeezed with relatives, underhoused, or in unsafe or temporary accommodation.


Just how the homeless crisis is handled during a pandemic should be a concern to government at all three levels. The city has now spent close to $5 million from 2021-22 on temporary accommodation, and $390,000 on short term hotel room stays for the homeless. The housing units, for singles’ use, on the Dartmouth waterfront, and at the Centennial pool site in Halifax will house about 70 people.

This Should Be Housing: Sticker (NSAdvocate.org); map of where empty buildings and lots that should support housing here (NSAdvocate.org); Vacant 6-storey federal building at 176 Portland St. Dartmouth (Google Street View)

There are lists of vacant buildings owned by governments and privately at this site: Why can’t the governments spend money to build suites in existing buildings such as the old library, or the vacant office building at 176 Portland St in Dartmouth (see photo above) and others to house the homeless? It would serve homeless or those in precarious housing – after the pandemic is no longer with us.

Our governments have all but abdicated responsibility to meaningfully inform — let alone protect — us. Aside for pushing the third shot, and vaccines for children, governments and public health units across the country push us as individuals to take charge; it’s your responsibility to find and buy the N95 masks (expensive and hard to find); your responsibility to keep your children out of school or in school at the government’s call. This message is amplified by a media which has made Covid, Covid numbers, Omicron, lockdowns, deaths and sickness from the pandemic the number one story across the country week in, week out since March 2020.

It’s YOUR responsibility to get the vaccine; it’s your responsibility to find and buy expensive N95 masks; it’s your responsibility to keep your kids out of school — or in school — at the government’s call

Though most parents must work, it was the parents’ (usually the mother’s) obligation to home-school for weeks on end in 2021, and possibly for weeks here and there in 2022. It was refreshing to see the YMCA of Greater Halifax and Dartmouth invite panicked parents to drop their children at the Y this week. The kids will be supervised, get help with their online learning, and receive free snacks and lunch. The Y will also loan dozens of Chromebooks to children to do their online work. That’s a great community response to yet another week without school in Nova Scotia.

Featured image above: The Triumph of Death, painted in 1562 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (credit: Museum del Prado, Madrid). This illustrated an article Plague and poetry: How Middle East authors have written about disease, featured here.

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