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‘The urgency is there’: COVID-19 pandemic puts health at election forefront

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WATCH: Trudeau pledges new funding in push for provinces to adopt COVID-19 vaccine passports – Aug 27, 2021

Earlier this week, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took to the podium in Mississauga, Ont. to talk about long-term care.

“Seniors in long-term care have borne the brunt of this pandemic,” he said on Tuesday.

If elected, he promised an NDP government would end for-profit long-term care homes, which he said were the site of some of the “worst conditions” over the pandemic.

A day later, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole pledged to give more money to the provinces for mental health programs, as well as create a national suicide prevention hotline.

“Someone you know is struggling right now,” he told supporters in Brantford, Ont. “The mental health crisis is the epidemic within the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Canada election: Are Conservatives trying to secure a broader base? – Aug 25, 2021

And right before the election, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced a plan for mandatory vaccines for workers in federally regulated industries and airline passengers. He offered more details at an event during the campaign’s first week.

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“Canadians know that the way to get through this pandemic is for everyone to get vaccinated. So unless people have a medical exception, they will not be able to board a plane or a train in Canada if they are unvaccinated,” he said.

Health care is always a big issue in campaigns, experts say, but the pandemic has put a new focus and urgency on many health concerns.

In a recent poll for Global News, Ipsos found that 31 per cent of Canadians ranked health care as their top concern, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic at 26 per cent – beating other issues like the economy and climate change.

Read more: Majority of Canadians support mandatory vaccines, say COVID-19 a top election issue: poll

“When we asked people on surveys what’s the most important issue in this election, health comes out at the top of the list, usually one or two, depending on what’s happening with COVID that day,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos public affairs.

Canadians always say health care is important, said Colleen Flood, University of Ottawa Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and director of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics.

But this election, she thinks that the pandemic has brought a “granularity” to the debate that isn’t usually there.

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“I think what we’ve seen on certain issues, the failings of the health-care system have just come so much more to the fore. And so I think Canadians are looking to the federal government for solutions to these problems,” she said.

Read more: Politicizing COVID-19 vaccine mandates could backfire, experts warn

She said she’s been interested to see public health issues, like stockpiles of personal protective equipment or research funding, make it into party platforms.

“It’s not very sexy compared to opening a new wing of a hospital or approving some very expensive drug,” Flood said.

Everyone assumes that governments are doing “boring stuff” like stockpiling gear anyway, she said, “But unfortunately, that’s not the case.”

Canadians want to be assured that we will be well-prepared for the next emergency, she thinks.

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Canada election: NDP push to ban for-profit long-term care homes – Aug 24, 2021

An emergency can also show flaws in the way the existing system works, others say.

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Sandra Azocar, of the Alberta-based advocacy group Friends of Medicare, believes that the pandemic has demonstrated that long-term care needs to change.

“If this is an election that purports to talk about what lessons we should have learnt and should learn from this horrific pandemic, basically throughout this last at least 18 months, we have actually been able to see the conditions that seniors are currently living in and have been living for the past decades,” she said.

“For us is the urgency is there,” she said. “And what we want to see is real national standards for long term care, long term residential care. And if it’s ever been a time where this needs to happen, it is now.”

Read more: Canada election - Complete list of health care promises made during the 2021 campaign

Health care endures as an election issue because Canadians are looking out for their own futures, Bricker says.

“Their concern is not necessarily about health care today, although sometimes there is an issue, for example, like long term care, that can make it a more immediate issue. It’s more about whether or not it’s going to be there for them in the future.”

He says the pandemic could affect the election in another way too: turnout.

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“There’s a substantial number of people in our polling, a quarter, a third, that say that they’re worried about going out to actually vote,” he said.

People question the government’s judgment on holding an election during a pandemic, he said.

“Why would you put people in this type of a circumstance? So it’s going to change how people think about the government and its motivations, but it’s also going to change how we participate in the election campaign, which could be a lot of mail in ballots, many more than we’ve had previously.”

Read more: ‘We’re in big trouble.’ Doctors worry Canada’s 4th wave of COVID-19 could be biggest yet

While health care is primarily a provincial responsibility, Flood believes that there is more latitude than many people think for the federal government to influence health. The day-to-day operations of hospitals and doctors are provincial jurisdiction, she said, but the federal government has “an important role to play” in public health, and especially with its spending power.

“The feds can really do a lot with the money that they have to nudge, push, persuade provinces in the direction that we hope they should all be going,” she said.

Whatever promises parties make, Flood would like to see politicians describe exactly how they’re going to ensure that they happen. Too often, she says, federal politicians promise millions of dollars for a program, like home care, but after giving the money to the province, don’t follow up.

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“I think for the dollars, it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking NDP, Conservatives or Liberals, Canadians should ask, what do we actually get for this and how will you demonstrate that we have got it? So how will I know that this money that you’re promising to reduce wait times, how will you demonstrate that? Where will be the proof in five years that every single penny of this has actually gone to reducing wait times?”

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Canadians should hold politicians’ feet to the fire on health issues, she said.

“It’s ridiculous the amount of dollars that we pay as Canadians and our taxes — we really deserve one of the best health care systems in the world,” Flood said.

“That’s what we’re paying for. And our federal and provincial governments need to deliver on that, working together. And we should demand that they do that.”

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