Insights May 2020

Governments Must Prioritize Vulnerable Groups when Re-Opening Economies

Naomi Lightman and Lorian Hardcastle



Despite calls that we are “in it together”, many of the most vulnerable communities are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes individuals living and working in long-term care facilities, factory workers, homeless and incarcerated populations, and some on-reserve Indigenous communities. As governments re-open their economies, policymakers must balance the interests of the broader public with those who live and work in conditions that put them at risk.

Initially, governments scrambled to implement public health measures to flatten the curve with limited thought to the impact of social inequalities. Rather, many of the strategies for social distancing presumed individual family homes, nuclear family arrangements, access to private cars, workplaces that could transition to online formats, and living conditions where outdoor space was available. As a result, many groups outside this presumed norm were either left behind or inadequately protected during the spread of the virus.

For example, provinces were slow to address how social distancing would affect individuals struggling with homelessness. This led to a rush to create accommodations in shelters, often in close quarters that did not meet physical distancing recommendations and lacked basic facilities such as showers and laundry (Jeffrey 2020). In other cases, provinces allocated resources in ways that failed to adequately protect at-risk populations. For instance, while they put significant efforts into preparing hospitals for an influx of cases, long-term care homes were left without adequate staff, personal protective equipment or testing supplies. 

An astonishing 79% of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths have been in long-term care and seniors’ homes (Walsh and Semeniuk 2020). Conditions are so bad in some facilities that lawsuits have been filed, criminal charges may be laid and the federal government has deployed military assistance. Ontario alone has infections in 174 homes, including 2,831 infected residents, 1,111 deaths, and 1,671 infected staff (Government of Ontario 2020). Some governments have lagged behind in protecting residents by prohibiting workers from working in multiple facilities, and in testing all staff and residents. Elderly residents in for-profit homes have often fared worst.

Healthcare workers in long-term care homes have struggled to obtain personal protective equipment, and some allege that they were instructed to work while symptomatic (CBC 2020). Long-term care staff are overwhelmingly women, and many are immigrants and racialized individuals.

Long-term care workers are often underpaid relative to their hospital counterparts and many are employed part-time and thus may not have access to sick-leave benefits, which deters missing work while ill, given the need to make ends meet. The precarious nature of their work may make them less likely to advocate for their own safety or to report dangerous conditions.

In meat-packing and poultry-processing factories across Canada, there is widespread infection and, in some cases, entire communities are affected. For example, the Cargill plant in Alberta has almost 1,000 cases, which represents nearly half of its workforce. The outbreak has spread to the workers’ community, including outbreaks at a nearby long-term care home and First Nation. In total, over 1,500 cases are linked to this facility (MacVicar 2020).

Factory work is difficult, rates of workplace injury are high, and staff often live in close conditions. Workers are disproportionately immigrants, and many are temporary foreign workers, which hinders their ability to invoke workplace safety protections. Here, too, governments have been slow to respond and unwilling to close factories due to concerns about the impact on Canada’s food supply chains. As summer agricultural work begins, similar outbreaks are likely to occur among migrant farm workers. Ontario has already seen its first cases among fruit and vegetable farm workers.

Other vulnerable groups are similarly at risk due to close living conditions and poor access to health services. As economies re-open, guards or others who work in prisons may be at increased risk of community transmission. Should they then bring an infection to work, prisons are spaces that are highly conducive to the rapid spread of COVID-19. To date, 294 inmates at federal correctional facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 (Correctional Service Canada 2020). Indigenous people may also be at risk due to poor access to health services and crowded living conditions on reserves. As of May 8, there were 164 confirmed cases on First Nations (Government of Canada 2020). In urban centres, Indigenous groups make up a disproportionate share of the homeless and incarcerated populations, both of which are also at high risk for contracting COVID-19, highlighting the intersection of vulnerabilities among affected groups.

Provincial governments failed to properly protect some of Canada’s most vulnerable residents in their haste to stop the spread of COVID-19. In starting to re-open provincial economies, it is imperative that they not make the same mistakes. Governmental policy choices must not only be dictated by majoritarian and economic interests, they must also address social inequalities and take substantive steps to protect those most at risk of infection. 

About the Author(s)

Naomi Lightman is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB.

Lorian Hardcastle is Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law and Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB.


CBC News. 2020, April 20. After 67 Residents Die, Class Action Sought Against CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée and CISSS de Laval. Retrieved May 8, 2020. <>.

Correctional Service Canada. 2020, May 7. Inmate COVID-19 Testing in Federal Correctional Institutions. Retrieved May 8, 2020. <>.

Government of Canada. 2020. Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Indigenous Communities. Retrieved May 8, 2020. <>.

Government of Ontario. 2020. How Ontario is Responding to COVID-19. Retrieved May 8, 2020. <>.

Jeffrey, A. 2020, April 19. More Help Needed for Edmonton’s Homeless During Pandemic, Critics Say. CBC News. Retrieved May 9, 2020. <>.

MacVicar, A. 2020, May 7. Coronavirus: Cargill, Union to Have Hearing with Alberta Labour Relations Board Next Week.” Global News. Retrieved May 8, 2020. <>.

Walsh, M. and I. Semeniuk. 2020, April 28. Long-Term Care Connected to 79 per cent of COVID-19 Deaths in Canada. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved May 8, 2020. <>. 


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