Academic journal article Capital & Class

Capitalism Is Making Us Sick: Behind the SARS Crisis in Toronto

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Capitalism Is Making Us Sick: Behind the SARS Crisis in Toronto

Article excerpt

The outbreaks in Toronto shone a harsh light on the inadequacies and outright failures of neoliberal public health policies and practices.

They also clearly showed the extent to which neoliberal governments prioritise business security above the health and social security of workers. Even more than this, however, the SARS crises revealed some of the ways in which the pressures of capitalist social relations make people ill.

Public health officials in Ontario first received warnings of SARS in early February, and a full-blown crisis was emerging by March.

By late April, Ontario's Tory Premier, Ernie Eves, had not even recalled the legislature--which had been on hiatus since Christmas--in order to devise a plan for dealing with the various aspects of the crisis.

For weeks, the Tory plan appeared to consist of little more than suggestions such as 'wash your hands', or 'eat in Chinatown.' Government only responded, and even then largely in terms of public relations, after the embarrassment of the late-April WHO (World Health Organisation) travel advisory, and the threat of losses for tourist industry owners. Even worse, the provincial government's rush to assure tourists that the crisis was over, following the wto advisory, seems to have played a major part in a renewed outbreak at the end of May.

The nurses' unions reported publicly that, prior to the second outbreak, its warnings to the government that it was too soon to let up on SARS had gone unheeded. Clearly it was public relations, rather than public health, that was at the forefront of Tory concerns.

Making Ontario susceptible: The impact of neoliberal restructuring

Healthcare in Canada operates in a complex space where federal and provincial mandates intersect. Healthcare is considered a provincial responsibility, but the majority of funding is provided by the federal government through the national Medicare programme. The federal Liberal government has instituted, over its three consecutive majority terms beginning in 1993, a massive reduction in funding to the provinces. Beginning in 1995, the federal government removed regulations covering healthcare funding that had previously ensured that it went directly to healthcare. This left Ontario's governments free to apply $987 million of federal healthcare money to areas such as cost overruns in the hydroelectric industry (Diebel, 2003: A8). This situation was compounded when the former finance minister and current prime minister, Paul Martin, cut $6 billion from healthcare funding to Ontario over the four years between 1995 and 1999.

Most of the harm to Ontario's healthcare system has been inflicted by the provincial Progressive Conservative (Tory) government. Like the Walkerton tragedy before it, in which several people died and hundreds became sick after privatisation and cuts to water inspection contributed to E. coli contamination of the town's drinking water, SARS revealed the extent of the damage done to Ontario's healthcare system by the Tories. When the Tories assumed power in 1995 under the leadership of Eves's predecessor Mike Harris, they pursued a stated policy of creating a crisis in public services in order to encourage privatisation and cutbacks. Harris withdrew $1.3 billion from hospitals in order to underwrite a policy of tax-cuts for the wealthy and for corporations (Diebel, 2003: AI). With regard to healthcare, Harris maintained that Ontario employed too many nurses, and worked to reduce staffing levels by laying off thousands of nurses. Between 1995 and 1999, 25,000 hospital positions were cut in Ontario (Diebel, 2003: n8). In addition, nursing in the province was increasingly casualised, with fifty per cent of nurses working part-time and often holding down two or three jobs at separate hospitals. Only 18 months before the SARS outbreak, the government had fired five leading laboratory scientists working with a Toronto reference laboratory unit that monitored coming infections and new disease threats (see 'Hospitals and public health units across Ontario relied on their work', Toronto Star, 2003b: a9). …

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