Privatization was in plain sight




Metroland Media Group Ltd.


The emergence of COVID-19 not only wreaked havoc on the health-care systems in various countries, it also exposed embedded fragilities. Unfortunately, the Ontario health-care system is not exempt. In the past few years, Ontario nurses have called attention to the terrible and precarious conditions under which they have been working. As expected, the emergence of COVID-19 alongside Bill 124 resulted in the mass exodus of nurses from the profession. Interestingly, as nurses leave the public bedside, forprofit nursing agencies remain on the rise, with new private agencies created each day, all of which promise to fill the gap left by nurses who have left the profession due to its unfavourable working conditions. Following Arundhati Roy’s critique of the politics of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it might be easy to indict this piece as a critique of all nursing agencies. In fact, to a limited degree, nursing agencies are indeed living up to their promise of mitigating staffing shortages. However, here is the bone of contention: at what cost? The surge in private nursing agencies characterize a neo-liberal western propaganda that views health as a market opportunity, and as such, transforms health care and health services, a sacred necessity, into a bidding war. For example, in an August article in the Ottawa Citizen, the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses, Linda Silas, is heard calling for a thorough audit of private nursing agencies and the use of public dollars. Furthermore, in the same article, an ICU physician at Michael Garron Hospital is heard complaining about these agencies’ price surge method to send staff to where they are needed. One must wonder, then, the conditions of work and the quality of care that both the nurses and the patients in the facilities unable to pay high prices are subjected to. Make no mistake: nurses who choose to work within the public health system are not morally superior to nurses who work with private agencies. However, the existence of private nursing agencies is only a consequence of a much bigger problem. To the untrained eye, these agencies pose no problem as long as they supply nurses to the facilities where they are needed. But the ongoing crisis within the nursing profession, especially in the light of COVID-19, is the shock necessary to privatize health-care system. How else, then, does one explain that Ford and his cabinet were acutely aware of the impact of Bill 124 on nurses, yet refused to repeal it. Recently, the government announced plans to invest in private clinics for surgeries and long-term homes. With the promise of “lowering wait times” and using words like “bold, innovative, and creative,” the government continues to suggest and recast privatization as the panacea for our health-care system. But it is not. Privatizing health care only usurps access from the hands of the public, thrusting them into the pockets of wealthy investors who only see market opportunities in every crisis. In addition, privatizing health care shifts government responsibilities onto the individual to account for their own rights to health. We must, then, never lose sight of the people with inequitable access to health care (people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, Black and brown people, among many others), for whom these inequities are bound to increase in a private health-care system. The promise of “lower wait times” does not guarantee better and quality care, a lesson from the military report of private LTC homes, nor guarantee accountability and transparency into how care is provided. Whatever promise privatization offers is pyrrhic and unsustainable in the long run. Our best bets remain to reform and fund our public health system, follow the recommendations of several health experts and, as Birgit Umaigba would say, fight health privatization with all our might.