The COVID-19 crisis is cutting a wide swath through two Alberta communities where local economies depend on meat processing plants. Those plants employ thousands of newcomers to Canada. In this special three-part series, Canadian Cattlemen looks at the immediate and longer-term fallout. This is the first article in that series.
As I researched this story, I caught glimpses of what life is like for the people who process the meat from the cattle Canadian ranchers raise. Frankly, I had not thought much about the work they do before now, even though they are critical to the industry’s success, and for that I owe them an apology.
These are people who came to Canada in search of a better life, taking on difficult jobs with long hours. They now live with the prospect of life-threatening disease. And to make matters worse, some are blaming them for the disease’s spread.
It raises questions that need to be answered. As Ric Morales, director of community development and integration services at Calgary Catholic Immigration Society in High River points out, “This is not about Cargill. This is not about any ethnic group. This is, first of all, about a community, a province, a nation.”
COVID-19 has cracked open the vulnerabilities in Canada’s beef supply chains, exposing some disturbing realities about the challenges faced by this workforce so important to the success of Canada’s beef sector.
Meanwhile, the communities at the outbreaks’ centres are struggling to slow the disease’s spread.
Hundreds of workers employed by the JBS packing plant at Brooks and the Cargill plant north of High River have tested positive for COVID-19. By late April, both plants had seen one confirmed COVID-19 death among their workforce. The disease’s long incubation periods means that cases are being diagnosed well after control measures were put in place, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said during a daily briefing.
The infections and deaths have brought both plants under fire, with the Alberta NDP calling for a public inquiry into the outbreaks. Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) staff are investigating the circumstances and potential exposure to workers at both plants, said Shawn MacLeod, deputy minister of Labour and Immigration, during a briefing on April 22.
With the Cargill plant’s operations suspended, questions arose as to why JBS was still operating.
Hinshaw said that during the High River outbreak, Alberta Health Services (AHS) “made sure that plant site had every precaution in place.” AHS also recommended people take precautions outside the plants, such as avoiding carpooling and self-isolating, but people didn’t necessarily have the supports to take those precautions, Hinshaw said on April 22.
“And so what I think is really critical about these situations is that we don’t just look at one particular site, but we look at the whole picture,” said Hinshaw.
The front lines of the outbreak
Whatever OHS determines after investigating, the reality is that High River and Brooks are now faced with quelling COVID’s growth within their own communities.
“This issue with Cargill is a very complex issue. And just because the plant is now shut down does not mean the issue is contained or has all of a sudden disappeared,” said Craig Snodgrass, mayor of High River, during his weekly address.
Local medical health officers are now taking a community approach to the pandemic, putting in measures in all settings of people’s lives, Hinshaw said. They’re also offering testing to anyone who was at the JBS or Cargill plants, she added.
Snodgrass praised people at the Ministry of Health for their response, saying “they have just done a full cannonball into High River with the resources.” High River now has a COVID-19 hub, monitoring and isolating infected people. Different health agencies are working together, which Snodgrass said is exciting to see.
Calgary Catholic Immigration Society and Foothills Immigrant Community Services help immigrants and refugees settle and integrate into southern Alberta communities. People from both non-profits, which are linked, are reaching out to newcomers in High River, Okotoks and Calgary to make sure they understand the health directives and have the resources to comply.
The City of Brooks is also working with AHS to bring in broad-based community testing, said Barry Morishita, mayor of Brooks, during an interview. The city is also stepping up messaging and enforcement on things like social distancing and large gatherings, he added.
Mayors of both High River and Brooks are keenly aware of the national economic ramifications of the outbreaks in their communities.
“We’ve got enough economic problems in Alberta, between oil and COVID now. And then to add another piece where agriculture is even more strained than it was before — we need those things to keep going,” said Morishita.
Still, the health and safety of Cargill’s workers needs to take priority, Snodgrass said. Trying to open up the economy without protecting people’s health won’t work.
“We’re working on a just-in-time solution on all this. There’s not a one-size-fits-all for every community throughout the world on this,” said Snodgrass.