Sunday, May 03, 2009


As best as I can read the results of what is happening worldwide (which I admit is something like predicting the future from the entrails of sacrificial animals-in this case pigs) the global panic over "swine flu" (or whatever it may be renamed because of political pressure) is overblown. The over 100 deaths in Mexico probably represent the mortality tip of a very large morbidity iceberg, one of a new flu strain that has probably been spreading for some time and whose general symptoms, if there are any, are hardly severe enough to convince people in a poor country such as Mexico- without universal health care- to even see a doctor, let alone go to a hospital.

Be that as it may, with the probability that this flu will be no more virulent than recurring seasonal flues at this time ,there is no guarantee that we won't see "the big one" this fall when the virus has had enough time to evolve and swap genetic material with other flu viruses across the world. In any serious outbreak there will be certain classes of workers who will have much more potential exposure than others. This includes not just the obvious health care workers but also pretty well anyone in various branches of the transport industry. The following article from the AFL-CIO blog speaks of the inadequacy of the present systems to protect these workers. While not agreeing with the expected tendency of the authors to refuse any criticism whatsoever of the present US Administration I still think this post is valuable for pointing out present problems with American preparedness for any pandemic.
Health Care Workers at Risk as Swine Flu Spreads:
by Mike Hall, Apr 30, 2009
Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the threat of widespread human infection from the outbreak of swine flu to its second-highest level. The outbreak of swine flu originated in Mexico and is now spreading throughout the United States and around the globe.

But as an April 16 report released by the AFL-CIO and several unions, including the United American Nurses (UAN), warned, the nation’s health care workers—the first line of defense against the diseases—are at risk because many the nation’s health care facilities are not prepared to deal with a pandemic. The report, which surveyed 104 health care facilities in 14 states, found that while health care facilities have made some progress in preparing for an influenza pandemic, much more needs to be done. The survey found:
**More than one-third of the respondents believe their workplace is either not ready or only slightly ready to address the health and safety needs necessary to protect health care workers during a pandemic.
**43 percent of respondents believe that most or some of their fellow workers will stay home.
**One-third of the facilities have yet to develop a written plan for responding to pandemic flu and only 54 percent of the facilities have identified health care workers who will be at some risk of occupational exposure to the pandemic flu virus.
**Fewer than half the facilities surveyed (43 percent) have provided pandemic flu training to their workers, one of the fundamental elements of protecting workers from occupational hazards.

The California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC) is urging broader national action to promote containment and prevention of a broader swine flu pandemic.

The nurses union says after years of neglect of the public safety net, the nation’s health care infrastructure is badly eroded. Says CNA/NNOC co-president Deborah Burger, RN:

From SARS to avian flu to the current escalating outbreaks of swine influenza, it has become increasingly clear that we are risking a major catastrophe unless we act to restore the safety net, and devote the resources that are needed to protect the public.

The CNA/NNOC’s pandemic action plan includes:
**Recruit and mobilize teams of scientists to create the appropriate effective vaccine for the virus.
**Cease and desist any reductions in public health programs at federal, state and local levels. Lift any freezes on public health funding currently in place.
**Implement a moratorium on any closures of emergency rooms, layoffs of direct health care personnel and reductions of hospital beds.
**Assure the availability of protective equipment for all health care personnel.
For more information, visit

Meanwhile, the Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) is asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to enact flu safeguards that would include passenger screening tests for the swine flu. The AFA-CWA is also asking the FAA to order airlines to supply attendants with latex gloves and face masks and not to count sick day absences against contractually allotted sick days.

The union also wants the FAA to ensure that aircraft are equipped with proper and sufficient hand-washing materials and to emphasize the importance of regular and thorough hand-washing, and not touching one’s face, to crew and passengers.

In other swine flu developments, this week the Obama administration called on Congress to allocate $1.5 billion for combating the virus. That money to fight the swine flu outbreak would be available now if Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and “Bush’s Brain” Karl Rove” had not led the fight to strip $870 million from the Obama administration’s economic recovery package that was designated for pandemic preparation. Says John Nichols in the Nation’s blog The Beat:

The attack on pandemic preparation became so central to the GOP strategies [to attack the recovery package] that [the Associated Press] AP reported in February: “Republicans, meanwhile, plan to push for broader and deeper tax cuts, to trim major spending provisions that support Democrats’ longer-term policy goals, and to try to knock out what they consider questionable spending items, such as $870 million to combat the flu.

Sunday, Collins attempted to defend herself, dispatching a spokesman to declare that, “There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds.” But, as The Washington Post notes: “Collins and the others who led the fight to axe the flu money three months ago can only hope that doesn’t change.”

One the key recommendation to prevent the spread of swine is to stay home from work if you become infected with the virus. But as we reported in September, nearly 50 percent of private-sector workers have no paid sick days. For low-income workers, the number jumps to 76 percent. Says Pat Garofalo at the Think Progress Wonk Room.

Unfortunately, staying home due to illness is simply not possible for a large number of Americans….These workers have to decide between the health of themselves and their co-workers, and the wages that they lose by staying home.

This could be remedied by the Healthy Families Act, which Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) plan to reintroduce in Congress next month. The bill would “guarantee workers up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from an illness or care for a sick family member.” And if it helps prevent the spread of illnesses like swine flu, even better.

For more information, visit the CDC online at and WHO at, and check out the AFL-CIO resources on pandemic influenza.

This story has a local connection here in Manitoba where seasonal agricultural workers are brought in each year, mostly from Mexico. The local papers have been abuzz with claims and counterclaims about how these workers are covered, or not, by our medicare system. The provincial government claims that they are covered, but the experience of the past says that they are not. Many are covered only by "dollar store" private health plans that don't pay for many expenses that are covered under public plans such as Medicare. This has importance as many workers are quite fearful of running up medical bills that they have no ability to pay. The following is an article from one of our local papers, the Winnipeg Free Press, about the situation. the person interviewed, Gustavo Mejicanos, works for the Portage la Prairie branch of the Agriculture Workers' Alliance. The worker centres affiliated with this organization have been organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) which is trying to do here in Canada what has been done in the USA by the United Farm Workers. So far the results have been small, but the UFCW has at least managed to establish some unionization on farms here in Manitoba. The "big fish" of Ontario and BC, however, are still a work in progress, as previous articles on this blog have mentioned. It is important in the face of any pandemic, however severe or not, to make reporting to the health care system as easy as possible. Refusing to cover medical expenses goes in precisely the opposite direction. However much a mean spirited conservative attitude might like to punish such workers by denying them benefits, this sort of childish fit of pique shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of rational public health policy.

Migrant workers without health coverage a swine flu risk: union rep:
By Gabrielle Giroday, Winnipeg Free PressApril 28, 2009
WINNIPEG — Mexican migrant workers could put Manitobans and themselves at risk of swine flu because of their inadequate health insurance and fear of seeking medical help.

The warning came Tuesday from a Spanish-speaking union worker who said the migrants need better government-funded health coverage while in Canada.

“We are in a situation where we can’t take chances. . . . This is very dangerous to the system,” said Gustavo Mejicanos, who comes into contact with about 400 seasonal workers each year as co-ordinator of the Agriculture Workers Alliance Centre in Portage la Prairie, Man., about 100 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

He said the migrant workers come to Manitoba each year on temporary visas to make money for their families. Many are afraid to access health care because of costs not covered by the private insurance they are required to get.

Manitoba chief medical officer Dr. Joel Kettner said he doesn’t think the province is doing anything to address the issue of Mexican seasonal workers, but plans to look into it further.

“It’s an excellent question and I don’t know the answer. But it’s important to get an answer,” he said.

Private health coverage for migrant workers is often organized by the farm’s owner, Mejicanos said.

In Saskatchewan, a provincial spokeswoman said seasonal workers under the same federal program are covered by provincial health care.

Mejicanos estimated there are 60 Mexican seasonal workers already in Manitoba, men ages 20 to 45. He said 15 to 20 of those workers have arrived during the last month.

He said many seasonal workers work 12 to 16 hours a day on Manitoba farms and some suffer injuries. Many do not want to call attention to themselves for fear of losing their contracts, Mejicanos said.

“They’re afraid of losing their job and being sent back to Mexico,” he said.
Finally here is something that I really, really, really, really agree with. Seasonal workers arriving in Canada are now to undergo a much more extensive health screening than previously. That's all fine and good, as the following press statement from the UFCW points out- ie they have no qualms about this either. What is important, however, is that such screening be applied to all without discrimination on the basis of social class. Personally I'd like to see it done to Canadians returning from Mexican vacations, especially those who have gone there since the public furor about the flu. As I said, I don't think this unavoidable pandemic is "the big one", but such a situation is plain and simply inevitable. Best to get a few things straight before the worst happens.
Presently it seems that both Canadians travelling to Mexico on business and wealthy Mexicans arriving here for similar purposes are exempt from the screening that the poorer Mexican seasonal workers will have to undergo. This actually is something very close to the definition of "irrational". Airborne infections such as influenza just don't discriminate on the basis of the fatness of one's wallet. A rich Mexican has just as much chance of harbouring the virus as a poor one. Airborne infection, I said. NOT something from bad water or bad food. This can't be argued against. The following press release presents this demand for a rational fairness in perhaps less emphatic tones than Molly does, but what they say is obvious.

Statement by National President Wayne Hanley on new screening protocols for seasonal Mexican agriculture workers arriving in Canada:

April 27, 2009 — "Over the past decade, UFCW Canada has supplied information and services to tens of thousands of seasonal agriculture workers who are fundamental to the Canadian agriculture sector. The majority of those workers come from Mexico under a long-established federal program that has always required health testing of workers before they arrive in Canada.

On Monday, the federal government announced additional health screening protocols for these workers. To date, no Mexican worker in Canada has been diagnosed with the flu strain in question, and thousands of these workers have been here for months. That said, we support these protocols because safety is the top priority.

If these screening measures are considered appropriate for agriculture workers, logically they should also be used to screen all travellers from Mexico, including tourists and business travellers as well. The additional screening measures announced by the government should be applied to all those arriving from regions impacted by this new strain of flu.

As for workers already here from Mexico, our nine agriculture support centers continue to translate and distribute to them up-to-date information from the public health authorities. We are also there for any worker who is concerned about a health issue, or needs someone to act as an interpreter at a health clinic or hospital.

This is certainly a distressing time for all concerned. We share that concern and are prepared to work with all the stakeholders - here in Canada, and in Mexico, to ensure that safety remains the top priority for Canadians, for the workers, and for our communities."

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