Premier Stephen McNeil, at the daily COVID-19 briefing, April 13, 2020. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

The Halifax Examiner is providing all COVID-19 coverage for free.

Tim Bousquet writes:

One more person has died in Nova Scotia from COVID-19, bringing total deaths to three. The latest person to die was a man in his 80s, in the HRM.

Twenty-nine more people have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to 474. Nine people are currently hospitalized, four of whom are in ICUs; 101 people have fully recovered.

At today’s briefing, Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said that “around 30 [new cases] a day over the last week” is “a sign of some good news.”

Strang said the province is testing between 800 and 1,000 people daily, but only about 2% are testing positive.

“We’ve expanded our testing,” said Strang. “We tested lots of people with symptoms that could be COVID-19, but the vast majority don’t have COVID-19 — they may have some other mild respiratory virus. That tells us that our process around broadening testing is working … we’re testing lots of people but we’re getting relatively small numbers of people testing positive.

“While our number per day has increased to around 30, they don’t continue to climb,” continued Strang. “That’s also a sign that gives me some encouragement. If you look at other jurisdictions, once they start to climb, their numbers have increased and increased. The fact that we are now at a plateau of around 30 tests a day coming in positive, new cases, is again a sign that what we’re doing, the public health measures that every Nova Scotian has been asked to do, that the vast majority of Nova Scotians are complying with, combined with the expansion of testing and aggressive follow-up and contact, that is having a substantive impact. It’s hold the curve much flatter than if we weren’t doing these things. What we’re doing is working. However, it’s too early for us to say, ‘Now we can start to relax.’”

Strang said that “we still have a few weeks ahead of us that we still have to be really vigilant,” but in a few weeks “we can start to think about how we can slowly start to relax these restrictions.”

That timeline is consistent with what Strang has been saying since the beginning of this crisis — late April and into May will likely see the peak of the first wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Nova Scotia.

And last week, Strang doubled down on his message that the next few weeks is critical for reducing deaths. We must be vigilant about our social distancing practices, said Strang.

Last week, Strang castigated those who were looking for clarity around the public health orders by calling and asking the health authority if this or that activity was allowed. “Stop looking for loopholes,” he said.

The construction loophole

But what about construction sites?

I’ve been contacted by dozens and dozens of people, probably hundreds of people, who have asked me about construction. All of these people understand the gravity of the current situation. They understand that they’ve been laid off, or their businesses have closed, because we are putting saving a potential enormous number of lives above our personal economic concerns. Most of these people will come out of this poorer and many in debt. Many of the businesses owners will have to declare bankruptcy. But that’s the price to pay. They get it.

But then they see this giant exemption for construction, and they see construction sites all over the city, crowded with workers. And they remember that the small business rent deferral program gives a guarantee to landlords, while leaving small businesses with an added debt load. And it rankles them. Why does construction get an exemption?

Among the people contacting me have been construction workers and their families. They tell me repeatedly that social distancing rules are not being followed on job sites. The workers say that their objections to doing certain types of work that brings them near coworkers is ignored.

I’ve been told that an out-of-province construction worker was brought in to work on a large construction project downtown, but that worker did not self-isolate for the required 14 days before going to the job site. When other workers objected, they were told that construction has an exemption; this is not true — construction is exempted from the five-person rule, but not from the social distancing requirement or the requirement for people arriving from out of province to self-isolate for 14 days.

So I had prepared a question about this for today’s briefing, but once again there was no time for the Examiner’s questions. However, a Herald reporter asked a watered-down version of my question (there’s always time for questions from Herald reporters). Here’s how McNeil responded:

Well, it’s part of, when we were looking at the issues of how to follow public health orders, we looked at construction sites where the six-feet, two-metre protocol could be followed. Um, I was actually on my way here today and noticed some work happening on the 101, a construction site near Windsor where everyone was either using equipment or well past six feet apart. The same thing can happen at apartment buildings where we can actually have people on different floors.

We also have to have some economic activity going on in our province. We can’t completely go to a complete standstill. Where we’ve seen issues that we felt with the advice of Dr. Strang that there was a workplace that couldn’t operate or that didn’t have the appropriate protocols, we would close it.

That’s why the service industry, we aggressively moved early on. We were one of the first provinces in Canada to ensure that the service side of our economy was closed. And then we moved to the other aspects of our economy — is there a way to have parts of it operate? And we felt that was the case.

I can tell you we have inspectors on work sites. Where there are issues, people are being identified, and our inspectors are enforcing what is our regulation and we will continue to monitor that, but as we deal with COVID-19 and we continue to have progress on trying to control that with inside our province, we need to also make sure that our economy is in somewhat a position to allow us to come out of this whenever the public health orders are lifted.

Oh boy. Let’s unpack this. To begin, having the premier drive past on the highway and look over at a construction site is not an effective means of job site inspection. It takes, you know, actual inspectors — people with training and certification and who, most importantly, go to the job sites and inspect, and have the authority to cite or close down a site.

And well before the COVID-19 crisis came around, there was a dearth of inspectors at job sites. As just one of many indicators, with some disturbing regularity in Nova Scotia, construction workers fall to their deaths at job sites because their employers either do not provide the legally required fall protection equipment or do not enforce the requirement for workers to wear it.

So had I been able to ask my prepared question and had McNeil given that answer, my follow up would have been: Well, how many inspectors are there? Has the province hired any additional inspectors for the current crisis? How many job sites have been inspected since the public health orders were issued?

And: have any firms been charged, have any fines been levied? If so, why aren’t we hearing about it? The police regularly issue press releases telling us how many people they’ve charged with violating the public health orders; why isn’t the Department of Labour doing the same? Is it because no work site at all has been inspected, much less charged?

Cynically, the police probably have less of a political hill to mount ticketing a bunch of homeless people and other marginalized people than that faced by labour inspectors when thinking about charging well-connected development firms. Maybe that explains it.

Now, back to McNeil’s answer,  let’s think about how the economy gets going again.

After the crisis, small business people and the people they hire will be in an impossible situation. The businesses that somehow survive bankruptcy will be heavily indebted, and many of them, like restaurants and bars, will see lacklustre sales for a good while still as their customer base is either too broke to go out and spend or too afraid of going out lest they contract the virus, which while in decline, will still be with us.

Those small businesses will be in no position to hire back their full pre-crisis staff, and even in less of a position to take on still more indebtedness to expand operations. The small business sector will be struggling for a long, long time.

But construction? Please.

The global construction boom has been in process since just after the financial collapse of 2008/09. As manufacturing and services no longer have much of a return, the wealthy increasingly have been dumping their cash into real estate — into real estate investment trusts, into private equity firms that buy up rental properties like Highfield Park, and to no small degree, into tax avoidance and money laundering schemes that rely on property flips —  driving up prices and increasing construction everywhere.

This isn’t going away. The day after the crisis is declared over, the money will continue to flow into real estate unabated, and assuming they don’t fall over in a stiff wind, the construction cranes will rev up as if nothing had happened.

Giving the construction industry a four-week pause won’t stop that. It might, however, save lives.

It is always the time

El Jones writes:

On September 2, 2005, as the images of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina were shocking the world, Kanye West took the stage at A Concert for Hurricane Relief. Standing beside Mike Myers, West went off script. His famous remark, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” delivered unfiltered Black rage about the Black people left to die by the Bush government for five days.

West’s comments, of course, caused a meltdown. He was accused of hijacking the crisis, of making it about himself. Over and over we heard the argument: it wasn’t the time.

“It is not the time” is always used to silence those speaking inconvenient truth to power. People now remember West’s statement on George W. Bush as one of the most important public statements on the racism that drove the neglect and lack of response in New Orleans (something we would do well to remember as Bush is being rehabilitated by the “resistance” and his legacy of the Iraq war and Katrina being whitewashed). But West also spoke about the inequality in America that was laid bare by Katrina:

I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a Black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ And you know that it’s been five days because most of the people are Black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite — because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before, even giving a donation. So now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what’s, what is the biggest amount I can give, and, and just to imagine if I was down there, and those are my people down there. So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help with the set-up, the way America is set up to help the, the poor, the Black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, this is — Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way — and they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us.

West’s comments about the intersections between media portrayals of Black people, crisis response, and the deep structural inequality of racism and poverty are prophetic today during COVID-19. Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang’s shaming comments singling out North Preston, East Preston, and Cherry Brook on April 7 — comments which they have yet to apologize for despite repeated calls from community members — reveal yet again who matters in a crisis, and who gets left out.

In a call with community members on Thursday, April 9 that was live streamed on Facebook, Strang was pressed on the need to gather race-based data. Evidence now coming in from the United States shows, unsurprisingly, that Black people are the hardest hit. Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, among other experts, has repeatedly made the point that without these data to show what is happening in Black communities in Nova Scotia, any public health response to the virus is at best inadequate, and at worst perpetuates structural anti-Blackness in treatment, resources, and outcomes.

Dr. Strang responded that now is “not the time” to consider issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. He argued that those analyses could happen later, but that right now we are in a crisis.

When is the time to raise issues of anti-Black racism? If not in a crisis that is actually hitting Black communities, and hitting them harder by all accounts, then when is it okay to think about and mention Black people? Like tone-policing arguments that take issue not with racism, but with the way that Black people speak about injustice, “now is not the time” is consistently used to defer, ignore, erase, and invalidate discussions of race-based inequality.

In the press briefing on Tuesday, April 13, a member of the press finally asked a question I have burned with all along. Throughout this pandemic, the elephant in the room has always been McNeil’s years-long attacks on healthcare workers and their unions. To my mind, clapping for health care workers, or platitudes about their bravery mean nothing if a few months or years from now when their contracts come up, they continue to face cuts to staffing and pay that directly endanger patients, and endanger all our communities when we are hit with a pandemic like this one.

In April 2019, almost exactly a year ago, 93% of nurses said they believed patients were being put at risk due to staffing shortages. In November 2017, NSGEU released a statement about McNeil’s response to the healthcare crisis:

The past few days Stephen McNeil has attacked the credibility of the Auditor General and his staff, something he does whenever his failed record on health care is called into question,” said [NSGEU Second Vice-President Kim] Jenkins. “The real issue remains the crisis in health care that our members, working on the front lines, tell us is hurting patients, has left more than 100,000 people without a family doctor and is creating chaos in our hospitals and emergency rooms.”

Those are just two examples chronicling McNeil’s systematic targeting of health care workers. At the Tuesday briefing, Michael Tutton from the Canadian Press asked McNeil:

Premier, the unions that represent workers in nursing homes say that the COVID crisis is revealing a deep underlying problem of staff shortages that should have been remedied years ago. It will continue to reveal that. What’s your view of that post-COVID — not post-COVID but some time in the future, whenever that may be? Does this cause you to reflect and think the time has come to change those staffing levels in Nova Scotia?

Tutton’s question has long been needed to be said. There is a lot of rhetoric around how COVID-19 “does not discriminate,” yet if one thing has been revealed in this crisis it is all the ways that human systems do.

Just as the virus hitting North Preston put Nova Scotia’s longstanding racism and stigma towards Black communities on full display, the economic inequality caused by neoliberal austerity policies and constant cuts to workers, to the social safety net, and to public resources has been brought to the forefront.

As small businesses fail, as minimum wage workers are declared “essential” yet don’t deserve a living wage, as the working class go out to work frontline jobs at the risk of infection while the wealthy professional class sits home, and as lack of housing and overcrowded prisons threaten massive spread, our habitual neglect, cruelty, and willingness to discard certain people risks the health of all of us.

McNeil, of course, refused the invitation to self-reflection. Instead, he accused the very workers who are risking their lives of opportunism:

First of all I want to thank all those Nova Scotians who continue to care for our loved ones in long term care facilities across the province, whether they’re in public or private institutions. We’ve continued to work with them. We’ve continued to provide support for them.

This is not, quite frankly, the time for anyone to begin to negotiate — negotiation [sic] contracts of staffing models. This is about a time of Nova Scotians coming together to ensure that we provide the frontline workers with the stuff that, the support they need, and wrapping our arms around each other in this community. There’ll be lots of times for debate, and unions and others will have their opportunity to criticize or or question what we have done or what has been done in the past.

I want to make this very clear to all Nova Scotians. My focus is about ensuring that we save lives, we follow the advice of public health institutions, and that we support not only our frontline care workers in hospitals but those in long-term care facilities across the province from one end to another…

The time to address these issues was, in fact, decades ago, when the growing neoliberal consensus began widespread cuts to public resources. The time was before we ended up with the stark social and economic gaps we see today. Since that ship has sailed, if nothing else comes from this crisis it should be a wake-up call that our collective health and safety are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us. Austerity has not worked. It is time for accountability.

“Now is not the time” is the go-to of politicians dodging this accountability by deferring to the future. But as they say, tomorrow never comes. If we cannot get commitments to a more just society at a time when every media outlet is focused on nothing but health care issues, we certainly will not get them at some unspecified time when it becomes okay to talk about the policies that led us here.

Every day at 7pm a chorus of applause echoes along the streets of Halifax, people clapping and cheering their admiration and gratitude for healthcare workers putting their own lives on the line during the coronavirus crisis. But will that support translate to support for the health care unions during the next rounds of negotiations, or at the ballot box when McNeil inevitably screws those health care workers over?

It is precisely now that is the time for us to be very clear about power: about who has it, who has always used it to disenfranchise others, and who suffers when we allow our government to use a crisis to “bring us together” while exacerbating the actual gaps that leave so many behind.

Stephen McNeil doesn’t care about health care workers, now, or any other time.

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Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. I wanted to comment on the Cape Breton Spectator but didn’t know how. Here’s my comment; I may be going insane. The C.B.S. reported that Strang the worst case scenario would be if we had done nothing to fight covid-19 in the province of NS that by the end of June we could have over 6000 cases. That’s not the scary part. Strang also said with those cases we could have 85 hospitalizations with 1/3 potentially in ICU which would overwhelm our healthcare system. This is the part where i feel the insanity. Is Strang saying that in the worst case scenario, 56 covid patients in hospital and 29 covid patients in ICU in the province of Nova Scotia would cause our healthcare system to be overwhelmed? DID I GET THIS RIGHT? If this is actually the case, covid-19 is the fucking least of our problems.

  2. Meant to add, thank you as always Tim and El and everyone at the examiner for shining a spotlight on these things. So important.

  3. re “This is about a time of Nova Scotians coming together to ensure that we provide the frontline workers with the stuff that, the support they need, and wrapping our arms around each other in this community.”

    Hey Steve, you might want to get your talking points from a different PR team…the one you’re relying on for these bullshit bromides seem to be as tone deaf as you are. For most people the image of you wrapping your arms around them would be disturbing at the best of times…in a plague it’s something out of Poe.

    It’s instructive to see how someone with such a damaged moral compass, with so little compassion and with no detectable leadership qualities responds to a crisis that demands all three; how a high priest of neoliberalism clings to his religion even as it is exposed as a grotesque and lethal hoax. The premier has known that nursing homes have been in crisis for years and has not so much as lifted his little finger to help them, their overworked and underpaid staff, or their institutionally neglected residents. Now that that malign and calculated negligence is having such deadly consequences he suddenly wants to provide front line workers with “the stuff that, the support they need”. These are just words. McNeil and his austerity-pushing counterparts around the country, federal and provincial, have consciously, callously created all the conditions for the horror-show now unfolding in Canada’s long-term care facilities. As he knows very well and has known for years, the main support they need are more staff, a problem that probably can’t be solved in an emergency like this as current staff begin to get ill, even with a huge infusion of resources, which probably won’t be forthcoming anyway. Anyone who loses a loved one in one of these institutions during the current crisis need to remember both the policies and the failed ideology – and those implementing them – that will have played such an important part in their sufferings and deaths. And demand a change of both.

  4. I rarely listen to Strang and McNeil anymore but by accident I heard some of it and I think that Strang uttered at least 3 outright lies – that asymptomatic spread was only discovered recently ( I see papers on it as early as Feb 21), that masks were only recently found to be beneficial (Asian countries have been doing this for a long time and it is a no-brainer anyway) and false negative Covid tests were rare (30% is the number I see). As well he gave a non-answer about the long term plan. Public Health should be thinking ahead if anyone is. Problems at nursing homes could have been easily predicted and mitigated. Big lineups at Costco could also have been predicted.

    We will probably do OK despite mismanagement because we are small and somewhat isolated. But in terms of cases among provinces, only Ontario and Quebec are worse and Ontario not by much. Many countries are doing much better. This shouldn’t be so hard, just do what the best of them do. And as far as health workers go, some are good and some are bad, but it seems a lot of the spread is due to them – stupid decisions in an Eastern Region hospital, and in some of the ‘better’ nursing homes like Northwood.

    1. Dr Tam was opposed to people wearing masks so Strang was not going to contradict her.
      She was and is wrong. As a person of Asian descent she is no doubt well aware of the common use of masks in Asia, I saw it first hand in the ’60s.
      If you live in a dense area you are at greater risk than if you lived in Sheet Harbour. If you are poor and living in crowded conditions you are at greater risk than people in small homes in a village. If you live with 3 other people in one room in a nursing home you are at greater risk.
      We will all now have to insist public spending is moved away from the ‘nice to have’ to the ‘must have’ and those in our health sector are appropriately compensated.
      And have our own Nova Scotia fully funded pandemic plan

  5. El Jones – Yes! It is always the time to face the injustice of essential workers getting minimum wages whether at grocery stores or long term care homes, injustice illuminated (often only) by a crisis. Thank you.