Rather than treading over ground that other journalists and writers have covered, Nora Loreto has done something very different with her new book, Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Pandemic. While others have focused their attention on the elderly forced to suffer alone in their nursing home rooms, without the company of family and friends for months on end, or on the numbers of Canadians with one or two or three jabs in their arms, Loreto writes about work and workers and what has happened to them during the pandemic. She writes well, with her eyes open and fueled by a wry sense of humour.
Of course, Loreto is not the only journalist to shine a spotlight on how workers fared during the pandemic. Sara Mojtehedzadeh, a reporter at the Toronto Star, wrote about the spread of COVID among warehouse staff, food manufacturing and grocery workers in the Peel region west of Toronto—many of whom are racialized. Mojtehedzadeh also reported on COVID’s spread in the Amazon warehouse near Brampton. While Amazon in the United States revealed that more than 20,000 American Amazon workers had contracted COVID, “no similar disclosure” was made for Amazon Canada.
Mojtehedzadeh cites Mandeep Singh, a seasonal worker at Amazon near Brampton who, after working 60 hours a week, said he had to quit his job because continuing to work there would be “impossible to juggle with his other job.”
Loreto was among the first journalists to expose the fact that so many people who work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, had (and continue to have) no choice but to endure workplaces rife with COVID. In the first year or more of the pandemic, some ended up not only suffering from the virus themselves, but likely taking the disease from one workplace to another and then home to their own families. This realization was profound, because it was the low-paid carers, routinely given only part-time hours in nursing homes and institutions, who worked multiple jobs who were unknowingly responsible for COVID’s spread to the most vulnerable.
At the start of the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was clear that no one should have to worry about their jobs, because the government was going to roll out an emergency relief plan. Indeed, the government spent tens of billions of dollars on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which paid workers $2,000 a month if they had been laid off, or their jobs had disappeared due to the pandemic. Tens of thousands of working people across the country fared better on the $2,000 the feds paid them each month than they had in their low paid or minimum wage jobs, or on unemployment benefits.
Loreto’s book is a showcase for what an investigative journalist, with an eye for detail and a taste for stories, can do with a subject that has become tired and expert-shaped, yet thrown in our faces day after day for the last two years. Loreto devotes each chapter to a separate month in the first year of the pandemic, beginning with March 2020 and running beyond March 2021. For example, April 2020 focuses on the disaster in residential care, June 2020 hones in on systemic racism and COVID spread, and March 2021 sets its sights on “One Year in Media Cuts.”
The third chapter, “May 2020: COVID-19 Hits Food Processing Industries,” captured my interest. At the top of each chapter, Loreto aggregates the case numbers across Canada, and the number of deaths. That month the total case number had climbed to 55,061, while 3,391 Canadians had died. This seemingly incongruous statement was the basis for the chapter:
There were some curious similarities between Canada’s system of long-term care and its food processing industries. Years of profit maximization in residential care and food processing meant that both industries relied on low-waged, precarious workers to run their operations. The jobs are physically grueling, and immigrant or refugee workers are over-represented in both fields.
Meatpacking plants were among the worst hit. As product rolled by on automatic belts, workers stood at stations less than 18 inches from one another. A worker at each station had to cut meat from the bone or package the products. At a Cargill facility in High River, Alberta, for example, nearly half the workers got COVID. Benito Quesada, a 51-year-old father of four and his family had immigrated from Mexico for a better life. He caught COVID and died from complications. His 16-year-old daughter, Ariana, bereft at his loss, said:
We want other people to know what they [Cargill] did. Because I want every time that someone looks up the name Cargill, or just Googles it, I want my dad’s name to pop up.
Quesada had been a union activist and a shop steward who fought for other workers’ rights. His union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, said doctors had placed Quesada in a medically induced coma. Still, he died within a month of contracting COVID. Cargill never bothered to send a condolence card.
Typically, the large workplaces, plants, warehouses and grocery stores with hundreds of employees were closed environments, with no open windows or significant ventilation. Loreto calls them “superspreader environments.” While the media loved to wag a finger at young people who were exposed to COVID in bars, gym classes, and nail salons, there was comparatively little attention paid to what was happening in workplaces. Public relations spinners or companies’ own media officers churned out the “good news” about what the employers were doing to safeguard their workers. Somehow it was always too little, too late.
There was a big thing made of installing plexiglass dividers between work stations and in front of cashiers. Shoppers were encouraged to pay by card not cash, while direction signs were plastered on the floors up and down aisles in warehouses and in retail stores to limit human traffic. But of course, from the start of the pandemic, there was no paid sick leave for 48 percent of Canadian workers. Most hourly paid employees, plus seasonal and part-time workers have no paid sick leave whatsoever. The exceptions are few: in the federal jurisdiction there are three paid sick days per year, Québec has two and Prince Edward Island has one paid day annually. In the other provinces and territories there is no statutory paid sick leave at all. From December 2020, most provinces amended their labour standards codes to permit an extra three, four, or five paid sick days, if a worker tested positive for COVID. This was mainly to safeguard others from getting sick and to prevent plant shutdowns as a way to evade COVID.
Then there was the “hero pay”—the extra $2 an hour most grocery and retail companies paid their frontline staff. In Nova Scotia, $2 represented an increase of nearly 17 percent for workers earning minimum wage—it made a huge difference for them. Suddenly they could afford to buy a coffee, or take a bus, or pay their monthly bills. Of course, the good will and the hero pay lasted barely three months in Nova Scotia. After June 2020, all the employers discontinued the pay, though other dangerous waves of COVID came and went.
Loreto reveals fact after fact about how working people were affected. For instance, in Toronto in July 2020, 83 percent of everyone who contracted COVID was racialized. In the first 18 months of the pandemic, 62 health care workers died across Canada, of whom 72.3 percent were racialized. Nearly 45 percent of them were Black. An article published by TVO in February 2021 revealed the writer could not find out exactly how many racialized workers had been hit with COVID due to lack of race-based statistics from health units on deaths. Writes author Loreto:
I was the only person in Canada publicly tracking this information, data that this article referenced. The percentage was similar for all workers. Even though there was far less information about the race or ethnicity of non-healthcare workers who died from contracting COVID-19 in the workplace, of the 105 deaths, I had linked to a workplace outbreak, 50 individuals had their identities either fully or partially revealed. Of them, 74% were not white.
Loreto notes that white columnists and opinion writers in the media became ‘more white’ as the pandemic continued. She proves that as the proportion of white people in the population declined in Canada, the preponderance of white columnists actually grew. This has direct bearing on how those writers and columnists investigated and formed opinions about who was most affected by COVID. Loreto sifts through dozens of columns by two senior Toronto Star writers—Martin Regg Cohn and Susan Delacourt. Loreto wonders how they could have written about COVID with barely a mention of race or “racist social structures and policies.” This despite the fact that 52 percent of Toronto’s population is non-white, yet they were “the people who disproportionately bore the brunt of the pandemic.” She cites Lorrie Goldstein, a mainstay at the Toronto Sun, for a column that blamed the deaths in long-term care on politicians too focused on racism.
Loreto points out that most working people tried to take responsibility for health precautions, such as immunization, hand washing, and staying apart from one another. She took this from a study of 400,000 people conducted by the BC Centre for Disease Control in December 2020. However, when asked about following public health orders at work, their responses changed. 33 percent of respondents reported they could not stay home when sick, 45 percent could not work remotely, and half were unable to socially distance at work. Still, public health did not demand employers go as far as they could to protect their employees.
Loreto examines all these issues in depth. And what she discovers is big: whether small or large business, whether public or private sector, whether government, retail or manufacturing—the business response to COVID is what drove and shaped our public health policies during the pandemic. It also led politicians of all stripes to minimize serious risks to the immune-compromised, the elderly and the otherly-abled.
Loreto’s book shows that more than two years later, all our governments can offer are health warnings and three rounds of immunization. None of it was a challenge to how business operates and how disposable workers are. Our government’s response was just its latest sop to capitalism.
Judy Haiven is a retired professor of Management at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. She is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, an organization that fights against discrimination and bullying in the workplace. Check out her social activism blog at www.judyhaiven.ca.