Public testing for COVID-19 crippled by privatization: The case of Alberta

The refusal to stop paying the rich and increase investments in social programs has created the current situation where a health care system already over-capacity and where workers experience unsustainable workloads is now faced with the COVID-19 crisis. The  reversal of all privatization schemes is in order | PEGGY MORTON

Across Canada, labs with facilities to test for COVID-19 are overwhelmed. Both the speed of results and the scope of testing are far below what is needed, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and proven effective in countries like China, south Korea and Singapore. This is the case right across Canada and shows the need for significant expansion of public health laboratories.

Instead of expanding and further developing the potential of the public labs, the United Conservative Party (UCP) government in Alberta is intent on handing them over to private interests, almost certainly a global laboratory monopoly. This is not evident behind the talk of Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw who has given high praise to the staff of the public medical lab system in Alberta, Precision Labs, crediting the public labs for the fact that Alberta had completed more COVID-19 tests than any other province.

“That’s been possible due to existing infrastructure, the early availability of testing kits, collaboration with universities and a testing process that runs around the clock,” Dr. Hinshaw said. She further stated, “One of the advantages we have in Alberta is our provincial lab for public health, which is in the Alberta Precision Laboratories.” All COVID-19 related tests have been sent to the public provincial labs for analysis.

The UCP halted construction and cancelled the new public medical “superlab” in Edmonton immediately on coming to power in 2019, despite the clear evidence of the need for the facility. The Edmonton “superlab” would have extended public control across Alberta.

Then in November 2019, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) was served notice by Alberta Precision Labs, which is owned by Alberta Health Services, that it “is seeking interest from private third-parties to take over parts of lab services in Alberta.”

This would affect 850 full-time equivalent positions (FTEs), HSAA informed. Thousands of support staff in environmental services (cleaning), food services and laundry are also threatened with the loss
of their jobs to contracting out. Alberta Health Services has also given notice to the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) that it intends to lay off hundreds of nurses, and notified HSAA that it is considering privatizing ambulance services across Alberta.

HSAA President Mike Parker told Workers’ Forum that “when you lose control of your public sector health care and need to ‘negotiate’ increased or additional services, it impacts care. I will reference the current situation in the U.S. where hospitals are negotiating for increased compensation to continue treatment.”

This has been clearly demonstrated in Alberta. All labs including hospital labs, with one exception at the University of Alberta Hospital, were privatized in 1997. The 1997 privatization of hospital labs was later quietly reversed by the Canada Health Act, and the lab system serving Calgary and southern Alberta returned to the control of Alberta Health Services. No accounting of the disaster of privatization has ever been publicly made. What is known is that there was fierce opposition from those working in the labs to the degradation of lab services, including concerns about the private contractor organizing the work in a manner that disregarded expertise and prioritizing work that was the most lucrative instead of according to urgency and patient need. It is outrageous that the government will now reintroduce the same failed, anti-social schemes, based on the self-serving recommendations of the monopoly Ernst & Young, which directly profits from privatization schemes, and a hand-picked panel of neo-liberal hacks who produced the MacKinnon Report on Alberta’s finances.

The refusal to stop paying the rich and increase investments in social programs has created the current situation where a health care system already working at over-capacity and where workers experience unsustainable workloads is now faced with the COVID-19 crisis. Health care workers are showing what they are made of, while the financial oligarchy and its representatives are obsessed with self-serving schemes to benefit from the crisis. The Kenney government clearly intends to continue on this path of destruction, while organizing pay-the-rich schemes to funnel state funds into the coffers of the energy oligarchs.

The reversal of all privatization schemes is in order, including ambulance services, hospital housekeeping, food and other hospital services. Public services must be expanded and public enterprises developed. All layoff notices and planned staff reductions must be immediately cancelled, and temporary workers who have been laid off, such as the large numbers in child and family services, be immediately rehired.

Instead of handing over billions to the banks, energy and other oligarchs, investments should be directed to public enterprises, including the construction of the new public medical lab needed in Alberta. Alberta has much expertise in medical research at the University of Alberta and elsewhere. Immediate development of a Canadian publicly owned and controlled pharmaceutical industry is also a priority so that instead of the added-value created by medical researchers, laboratory workers and professionals being seized by private interests and mainly removed from the economy, it can be reinvested in expansion of health care, long-term care and other public services. People can empower themselves by demanding these investments be made. Health care workers and professionals who actually know what is needed must be the ones who say what is needed. Pro-social measures are needed to resolve the crisis in a manner which favours the people, not the rich.

(Workers’ Forum • March 27, 2020)



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