Windsor-Essex is one of Canada's worst coronavirus hotspots. Here's why

WATCH: Heated battle at Ontario legislature over migrant worker testing

The moving target that is coronavirus in Ontario is hovering over Windsor-Essex.

The region is home to an increasing number of new cases — the vast majority among migrant workers in agricultural settings.

These outbreaks have persisted for weeks and, despite a push for more testing, experts and advocates agree that larger systemic issues stand in the way of solving the problem. And should it not be contained soon, those issues could widen.

“Windsor-Essex area, right now, is ground zero. But at any moment, this could be another community anywhere in Canada,” said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with the group Justice for Migrant Workers.

“We have to be proactive in case of a second wave, and it seems we haven’t learned our lesson from this first wave.”

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Nearly half of all the region’s confirmed cases are from the agri-farm sector.

As of July 14, there were 1,829 cases in Windsor-Essex — 833 connected to agriculture work. They’re concentrated in five farms — four in Kingsville and one in Leamington.

In June, the region saw its largest two-day spike. A total of 98 new cases were reported on June 28. The health unit said 96 of those were from the agri-farm sector. The following day, it saw 88 confirmed infections, all but one being farmworkers.

Windsor-Essex’s virus tally has recently played an increasing role in the provincial total, keeping it exempt from progressing to the third phase of reopening. On July 9, for example, the province reported 170 new cases — 86 being from Windsor-Essex.

The local public health unit has ramped up on-site mass testing in recent weeks and the Ontario government recently deployed a team from its emergency management agency to help co-ordinate care and housing for farmworkers who tested positive for the virus.

So what’s the problem?

Advocates believe it lies in long-standing, systemic issues in the agri-food sector that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

For one, many of these workers are undocumented or “tied to an employer working under precarious immigration status,” Ramsaroop said, which means “there’s a constant fear of being sent home for standing up for their rights.”

He said workers not only fear deportation if they attend a hospital, but also hospital fees. Ramsaroop noted that there have been cases of migrant farmworkers being billed in the Windsor-Essex region for receiving medical attention for both COVID-19 and nonvirus-related reasons.

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“We’ve also had workers in the Windsor-Essex region tell us that they’ve requested access to testing and that has been denied by their employers,” he said. “They’re concerned about being sent home, and they’re concerned about next year, not being able to come back to work in Canada.”

Inadequate living conditions also fan the flames. Agricultural workers reside in shared, often cramped, spaces where physical distancing is “absent,” Ramsaroop said. They share bathrooms and are transported around properties in groups.

Despite provincial and local mandates to bolster public health precautions during COVID-19, “there’s been no enforcement, there’s been no accountability,” he said.

“What we’re seeing and what we’re hearing from workers is pretty much status quo.”

That was exemplified in a recent Globe and Mail investigation, which found the federal government allowed some farms to submit years-old housing inspection reports in order to secure labour during the pandemic. It also found that, for a six-week period at the onset of the pandemic in Canada, the government stopped conducting housing inspections under the temporary foreign worker program altogether.

Both the provincial medical officer and regional health units need to be more aggressive to get these outbreaks under control and protect the safety of agricultural workers, said Dr. John Neary, a physician at McMaster University and general internist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, who has been vocal about the migrant worker situation on Twitter.

Neary said that under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, health authorities could enforce better housing and workplace standards to allow for proper physical distancing during this crisis. They could also bar employees who test positive from working and shut down operations at farms that experience an outbreak. So far, a work stoppage order was issued by the local health unit at one unidentified farm.

But Neary says the approach seems to prioritizes economic interests over the safety of workers.

“Those decisions would probably lead to large financial losses and some crop failures. I think the policy decisions we’ve made show what our values are — which is that we place considerable importance on these financial interests and the availability of these crops than we do on protecting migrant agricultural workers from this disease,” he said.

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“Lots of other important things in the economy and in our society have had to go through adjustments, and lots of other people have had to suffer losses because of the pandemic response.”

On June 24, the policymaking related to Ontario’s agriculture industry came under increased scrutiny when provincial health guidelines were updated, allowing asymptomatic employees who test positive for COVID-19 to continue working under certain conditions.

The guidance sparked an outcry among migrant rights groups and the medical community.

While the province said it could be determined on a “case-by-case basis,” Windsor’s medical officer of health refused to implement the guidelines in his region, for which Neary commended Dr. Wajid Ahmed.

Even then, the largest outbreaks in agricultural settings long “predated that guidance,” he said.

“But this isn’t the major driver of the problems we’re having… The most important of which being their right to have medical assessments and be tested for COVID-19.”

What needs to happen?

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens has asked for the federal and provincial government to take the reins on tackling the farm outbreaks, saying the situation needs more co-ordination that they can provide at a local level.

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald has suggested incentives for farms to have workers tested, or fines for those that refuse.

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But Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital, says “the tools are already there” to tackle this.

“We have the capacity to do diagnostic testing, we have mobile testing trucks, we have the capacity to provide safe isolation for individuals who are infected. We have access to some of the world’s best medical care on the planet,” he said.

“The question is, is there the will to do this?”

For Neary, it’s not a problem unique to Windsor. Better policymaking is needed, he said, and it needs to address both the short and long-term.

While it might make sense to delay economic reopenings in the region — as Doug Ford announced Monday — or exempt the counties with the farms from moving forward, the decision to categorize Windsor as distinct from Essex County or Leamington raises a larger ethical question, he said.

“This is a large workforce of people who don’t have the same basic human rights as everyone else, who are so segregated that COVID outbreaks among them aren’t a big deal to the rest of society,” Neary said.

“I don’t think people are consciously thinking that, but the notion that that sort of segregation of populations should enable earlier reopening – it should really make us question what we’re doing in the broader public health response rather than an opportunity to reopen.”

— with files from the Canadian Press

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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