Many people in other countries, especially the US, would be surprised to learn that Canada’s health care system is not quite universal. Although doctors’ visits and surgeries are covered by the government, prescriptions, dental care, physiotherapy, and psychological services are not. Wait times for treatment can last for months, and remote communities, especially Indigenous communities living on reserves, have much difficulty accessing hospital care.
In their Walrus essay, “The Myth of Universal Health Care,” doctors Nadine Caron and Danielle Martin write, “COVID-19 teaches us about which kinds of tragedies we go to great lengths to avoid and which we allow to persist.” Such tragedies include those in long-term care homes, where “81 percent of Canada’s COVID-19-related deaths” happened during the first wave of the pandemic. LTC homes are chronically understaffed, with privately-owned homes being the most under-staffed and having the lowest-paid PSWs and nurses; these LTC staff often have to cobble together multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. This, coupled with crowded conditions, further spreads COVID-19. Long wait times are nothing new in Canada’s health care system, but waits are exponentially longer now that non-essential surgeries have been delayed while essential surgeries have been given priority, meaning that seniors that need a hip or knee replacement will have to endure more pain and discomfort and that patients may hold off on cancer screenings, leading to delayed diagnoses.
COVID-19 has also highlighted and exacerbated inequalities that exist in Canada, particularly for BIPOC folks. Toronto’s rates of positivity in mid-September were 79 people per 100,000 for white Canadians, while they were 547 in 100,000 for Black residents and 643 per 100,000 for Latin Americans. Indigenous communities in Canada, whether on reserves or living in cities, have less access to health care, as reserves are often in remote areas and the nearest hospitals are hours away; deaths from overdoses and suicides have also increased during the pandemic. On top of this, boil water advisories have persisted for years and continue during the pandemic, and the Canadian government’s plan to provide Indigenous communities on reserves with clean water by 2021 has been postponed.
What can we learn from this year of tragedy, inequality, struggle, and political division? In Canada, 2020 has served as a reminder not only how indispensable front-line workers are in hospitals, pharmacies, and grocery stores—it has reminded us just how far we still have to go to ensure equality for all. This change will not happen overnight, but the radical shift in both medical institutions (including virtual appointments) and our daily lives prove this change is possible.