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On April 23, 2020, just as COVID-19 lockdowns were starting to flatten the first-wave curve, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner asked Mary Ng, minister of small business, export promotion, and international trade, to tell Canadians when they could expect to get back to work. It was during a teleconference of the House of Commons’ industry-and-technology committee. François-Philippe Champagne, minister of innovation, science, and industry, had still not appeared before the committee, and members were restless about his delay.

Unable to question Champagne about reopening the economy, Rempel Garner pressed Ng to say when Canada’s first lockdown would be over. “The best way for businesses to get support is to get back to work and reopen. So when can the Canadian economy expect to reopen safely?” she asked. During her six-minute intervention, Rempel Garner cut Ng off repeatedly and asked for a government plan to both “flatten the curve and reopen the economy.”

That same day, Canada surpassed 2,000 official COVID-19 deaths. Millions of Canadians were at work, many of them toiling in large congregant settings. With work came the risk of severe illness, death, or long COVID-19. A few hours after the industry-committee meeting, Global News published a story about the death of a forty-eight-year-old Markham woman who worked at an Estée Lauder cosmetics-manufacturing facility located in Ng’s constituency.

At the time, Estée Lauder did not say if there had been other COVID-19 cases at the facility and told Global News that manufacturing was continuing as it was exempt from the closure of nonessential workplaces. In its 2021 year-end financial report, the global cosmetics giant announced that it had made $16.22 billion in net revenue, an increase of 13 percent compared with 2019/20 and more than in any of the past seven years.

In the UK, the Office of National Statistics tracked the occupations of all working-age people who died from COVID-19 regardless of whether they were infected in a workplace outbreak. It found that workers in “elementary occupations” (plant workers, general construction workers, custodians, etc.) were overrepresented by far in the death totals. This data was key to demonstrating that certain jobs were more risky than others during the global pandemic. Canada, by contrast, didn’t collect any similar data. All we have is information from workplace insurance boards, media reports that note the deceased person’s place of work, and anecdotes.

The report on the death of the Estée Lauder employee was the first publicly announced COVID-19 death related to manufacturing in Canada, and while we don’t know where the worker contracted the virus, her death raised many questions: Why was cosmetics manufacturing essential? Why was this factory able to stay open even after a potential COVID-19 exposure? Why was so little attention being paid to businesses like these, which continued to operate? How prepared were local public health officials to enforce compliance with COVID-19 precautions at large industrial work sites in their jurisdictions?

Two years later, these questions have yet to be answered.

Based on the exchange between Rempel Garner and Ng, one would have been forgiven for thinking that COVID-19 lockdowns had closed Canada’s economy entirely. Politicians framed the situation as a binary: either the economy was closed or it was open.

But what really was “essential” work? Policy makers seemed to jump past the discussion of what needed to stay open, what could have been slowed down, and what needed to close. In March 2020, writing for Refinery 29, Asia Ewart and Nadia Ebrahim explained that essential “includes banks, hospitals, supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations, post offices, and the like. They carry supplies necessary for survival, both in the long and short-term.” Nonessential businesses, on the other hand, are ones that “people frequent for pleasure” and include “gyms, bars, restaurants, movie theatres,” and so on. This was consistent with the way many other journalists explained the division, even if the answer to the question was a moving target: the Refinery 29 article includes an update from the following month, noting that thirty new industries had been added to the nonessential list in Ontario. The definition of essential changed often, whether on the advice of public health officials or at the whims of politicians, and it was rarely scrutinized.

In the background was manufacturing, an industry where workers made everything from tables to cars, clothing to steel sheets, packaging to, yes, cosmetics. There was seemingly no debate about whether manufacturing workers were essential: they were simply added to the essential worker lists. And, in being deemed essential, they were forced to work during the pandemic. Manufacturing, a huge, diverse industry, became one of the deadliest fields, its workers part of an invisible workforce that had to keep showing up through the pandemic despite the dangers of close-quarters environments. (COVID-19 spreads more easily in poorly ventilated spaces where many people spend long periods in close contact.)

Like all industries in Canada, manufacturing was subject to government and public health unit protocols that were intended to keep workers safe. Protocols varied from region to region but usually included improved cleaning, access to hand-washing facilities, temperature checks, and changes to physical layouts to try to separate workers. Estée Lauder, for example, told Global News it had brought in a range of measures including physical distancing, staggered breaks, and deep cleaning. Companies across the country implemented similar measures. However, workplace outbreaks have continued throughout the pandemic.

The first media reports about a Canadian worker’s death from COVID-19 were about Keith Saunders, a Real Canadian Superstore employee from Bowmanville, Ontario. He was forty-eight years old and died on March 25, 2020. Saunders’s death was newsworthy for many reasons: he was Ontario’s youngest official COVID-19 fatality at the time and an essential worker. He didn’t have the option to work from home. After Saunders, it was rare for worker deaths to receive the same attention—health care workers aside.

In April 2020, I started scouring news reports, public health websites, obituaries, and GoFundMe pages to try to account for people who had died from COVID-19 following an outbreak—whether in their long-term care residence, their workplace, or their apartment building. To date, I’ve pinpointed the deaths of more than 20,400 people. Because there is no official Canada-wide resource for tracking COVID-19 deaths related to outbreaks, I’ve relied on official and unofficial sources to create this database. This means that, while my research on deaths related to COVID-19 outbreaks is the best that we have in Canada, it’s also missing any death that slipped through an official government count (none of the provinces or territories have official counts related to deaths from workplace outbreaks) as well as deaths that weren’t reported by media or shared widely by family and friends.

Health care workers who died from COVID-19 received the most media attention. They demonstrated the ultimate sacrifice demanded by a medical emergency: a worker who died in the course of helping others survive. To date, at least seventy health care workers have died from COVID-19. This number was gathered through media reports, union announcements, obituaries, personal tips, and government information. Of these deaths, fourteen received no media coverage: we know nothing about them except which province they lived in and that they worked in health care.

Of the fifty-six health worker deaths that were made public, we know that their average age was forty-nine, the youngest was nineteen, the majority were male, and of the forty-eight workers whose racial information was also released, thirty-five were racialized and twenty were Black. While we can’t be sure that all COVID-19-related deaths among health care workers in Canada are captured in these numbers, we have a good idea of how many people died, where they worked, and who owned or operated the facilities in which they worked. Health worker deaths were better reported not only because their stories were compelling narratives but also because there was more institutional will to report their deaths publicly.

Unfortunately, we don’t have anywhere near the same level of information for workers in manufacturing, distribution, meat-packing, or other similar industries despite their numbers being as high as or possibly exceeding health worker deaths in many parts of Canada.

The only way to get an idea of how many manufacturing workers died from COVID-19 is to comb through media reports and information from ministries of labour and worker-compensation agencies. Because there has been little media attention paid to manufacturing workers and COVID-19, the best data available comes from workplace safety organizations. In Ontario, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) reported that at least twenty-three death benefits were paid out in manufacturing related to COVID-19 in 2020/21. This data was made public through a freedom of information request—my third to the WSIB over the course of the pandemic—released just before the holiday period in December 2021. For health sector COVID-19 death benefit claims, there was a range of between seventeen and twenty-three filed. Of these, fifteen death claims were paid out from the nursing and residential care facilities sectors. If the number of deaths in a sector was fewer than five, a specific number wasn’t given by the WSIB, which was the case for the social assistance and ambulatory health care sectors, meaning that somewhere between two and eight of the remaining claims were paid out.

By comparing this data with public reports on health worker deaths, we can estimate that at least thirty-two deaths were either definitely caused by or likely caused by a health care workplace outbreak in Ontario. Not all worker deaths result in successful WSIB claims, creating a gap between the seventeen to twenty-three reported by the WSIB and the thirty-two I’ve tracked. But, thanks to the attention paid to health care workers, we know that even the highest possible WSIB number is an incomplete count of health worker deaths.

Aside from the death of the Markham woman, I was able to find only four reported deaths of manufacturing workers from COVID-19 in Ontario from March 2020 to February 2022. Using local public health information that tracked workplace-acquired COVID-19 cases or reports from unions, Newmarket Today reported the death of a man who worked at Ability Fabricators Inc., in Vaughan, and CityNews reported two at Scepter, in Scarborough, connected to an outbreak that forced a partial shutdown of the facility. A worker at Decoustics, in Woodbridge, also died from COVID-19, which resulted in a successful WSIB claim. It isn’t a coincidence that two of these deaths were reported in York Region, where the local public health unit has been more transparent than most other units about deaths related to COVID-19. The two Scarborough-based deaths occurred in a unionized facility and were announced by the union. Death information is more likely to be released if deaths occur somewhere overseen by a diligent public health unit, like York Region Public Health, or within a unionized facility where union representatives are paying close attention.

What about the other workers who died? And how many more didn’t make a WSIB claim, either because they didn’t have the resources to file one, because their employer refused, or because they couldn’t prove that they caught COVID-19 on the job? How much did inadequate access to testing, bosses refusing to comply with public health orders, and a lack of attention on this industry drive up the infection and death rates among these workers?

Because of the state of data collection in Canada, these question remain unanswerable. When you add in data from media reports related to industrial facilities that are large congregant work settings similar to manufacturing, like industrial laundry or processing facilities, that number shoots up by twenty-four deaths, totalling at least forty-eight deaths across the country.

In Alberta, of the thirty-six Workers Compensation Board workplace COVID-19 death claims paid out from January 2020 to January 2022, the top three categories had seven deaths each: construction; manufacturing and processing; and health, government, and education. While we can’t see which deaths contribute to each of these totals, food processing is included under manufacturing and processing. It’s therefore likely that Alberta’s seven meat-packing deaths make up most if not all of the seven manufacturing and processing deaths. In Quebec, 2021 data from the province’s Commission des normes de l’équité, de la santé, et de la sécurité du travail shows that workers in the health and social assistance services and manufacturing sectors were most likely to contract COVID-19 and that the deaths of five workers across all sectors were directly caused by COVID-19 in 2021.

Each week for most of the pandemic, Peel Public Health has published surveillance bulletins that drill into specific issues related to COVID-19. According to WSIB data, the Peel region has had the second-highest number of paid-out death claims in Ontario. On February 5, 2021, in one of the last surveillance sheets published by the health unit before mass vaccination really got going, it looked at how COVID-19 travelled within Peel via occupation. Despite representing just 7 percent of the region’s labour force, workers in the manufacturing and utilities industries made up 22 percent of the region’s COVID-19 cases from the beginning of the pandemic to November 2021, according to Peel Public Health. This imbalance was outpaced only by health workers, who made up 33.3 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the first wave despite making up only 5.1 percent of the region’s workforce.

In January 2021, seeing stubbornly high rates of COVID-19 compared with other parts of Ontario, Peel Region’s medical officer of health, Lawrence Loh, told the CBC, “In a nutshell, if you want to solve the ongoing plateau in Peel, you really need to address transmission within the essential workforce.” Loh asked the province to review what it considered an essential business to allow for more workers to stay home as infections remained high. While the Ontario government did not do this, Loh himself had the power to order businesses to be closed, a power he didn’t use until the region’s case count hit a crisis level months later.

By April 2021, workplace outbreaks within Peel Region started making national news. On April 20, Loh issued a Section 22 order—the same day Toronto issued a similar order—that forced any workplace with five or more lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases to close. The order exempted a few public services, including schools, health care facilities, first responders, and critical infrastructure support. The CBC quoted Dennis Darby, CEO of the lobby organization Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, calling the order potentially “catastrophic” and arguing that it “could endanger our food, PPE, and drug supply, in addition to undermining global supply chains of some of Canada’s most important economic contributors like automotive and aerospace.” By May, just sixteen orders had been made and only two were full closures, allowing the vast majority of companies to partially operate for the duration of their outbreaks.

Despite the mantra “follow the science,” no region in Canada seemed willing to contain workplace outbreaks in these large industrial settings. Without government debate about which services were truly essential, and with businesses operating more or less as normal, we have to ask: What happened to the workers who died? Would their lives have been saved had their workplaces been closed and their livelihoods maintained with pandemic pay? Sadly, because of our governments’ failures to rigorously collect pandemic data and put the health of Canadians first, we will never know.

Nora Loreto
Nora Loreto is a writer and activist from Quebec City. Her third book, Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Pandemic, was released in December 2021. She’s the editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media and, with Sandy Hudson, hosts the podcast Sandy and Nora Talk Politics.