OHRC: Letter to Minister Christine Elliott re: COVID-19 Action Plan for Vulnerable People

Hon. Christine Elliot
Minister of Health
College Park 5th Floor
777 Bay Street
Toronto, ON M7A 2J3

Hon. Todd Smith
Minister of Children, Community and Social Services
Macdonald Block Room M2B-88,
77 Wellesley Street West
Toronto, ON M7A 1N3

Dear Minister Elliot and Minister Smith:

RE: COVID-19 Action Plan for Vulnerable People

I am writing on behalf of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).

We hope this letter finds you and your team safe and healthy, and thank you for your ongoing efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The OHRC welcomes the April 23 release of the government’s COVID-19 Action Plan for Vulnerable People (the Plan) as a first step toward addressing the disproportionate impact that the pandemic is having on Ontario’s most vulnerable people. However, to ensure that the human rights of vulnerable people are protected in a way that is consistent with Ontario’s Human Rights Code, the Plan requires expanded scope and detail, which must be done in consultation with vulnerable groups and human rights experts.

Over the past few months, the OHRC has met with stakeholders from various sectors on human rights related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We heard significant concerns about the lack of consultation with affected groups. We also heard that while the Plan mentions certain vulnerable groups, it does not capture other vulnerable communities. The Plan also lacks clarity around how prevention, treatment and control initiatives are being designed to protect and benefit the most vulnerable groups in those communities.

In our April 2 policy statement and actions for a human rights-based approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic, the OHRC called on the government to uphold the human rights of vulnerable groups by taking the following actions:

  • Anticipate, assess and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and related restrictions on vulnerable groups that already disproportionately experience human rights violations
  • Make sure vulnerable groups have equitable access to health care and other measures to address COVID-19, including financial and other assistance
  • Consult with human rights institutions and experts, Indigenous leaders and knowledge-keepers, vulnerable groups, as well as persons and communities affected by COVID-19, when making decisions, taking actions and allocating resources.

Despite our early advice, the OHRC has not yet been invited to COVID-19 planning forums and tables. Nor have we been able to gain access to specific and timely information to better understand the human rights implications of the government’s COVID-19 initiatives.

The OHRC’s specific requests for more details on the implementation of the Plan and its effect on vulnerable groups have gone unanswered.

In our April 30 submission on Ontario’s next Poverty Reduction Strategy, the OHRC highlighted that social and economic crises, especially a health pandemic like COVID-19, exacerbate the existing inequalities vulnerable populations already experience, such as poorer health and poverty. An inadequate response to the needs of vulnerable groups also undermines the effectiveness of Ontario’s overall response to COVID-19, placing at risk everyone’s well-being and potentially exacerbating an anticipated “second wave” of the pandemic.

To effectively protect the rights of Ontario’s most vulnerable people, Ontario must take immediate action to expand and implement its Plan for vulnerable groups. The OHRC urges the government to make clear, detailed and public commitments in the following areas:

  1. Expand the scope of the Plan to ensure the needs of other vulnerable communities are properly addressed. Examples of communities that are currently excluded include:
  • People experiencing homelessness who are not currently using the shelter system (for example, hidden homeless people and people living in encampments)
  • Highly mobile populations of people who use drugs
  • People experiencing poverty and living in multi-generational and sometimes crowded housing while also working in high-risk settings, such as long-term care, food processing facilities and the service sector
  • In-patients in mental health facilities, including in addictions and withdrawal programs and in residential treatment programs for children and youth
  • Frail seniors in assisted living
  • Indigenous people living in urban and rural communities, and not in congregate care
  • Seasonal migrant workers living in shared housing facilities.
  1. Provide detailed, public information on how the roll-out of expanded testing, screening, tracking and surveillance will reach and benefit high-risk and vulnerable populations. Information should include a plan for:
  • How many tests will be done for vulnerable groups each day
  • How mobile populations will be reached
  • How asymptomatic people from high-risk and vulnerable groups will be tested, tracked and monitored.
  1. Consult and work with vulnerable groups that will be affected by the Plan by including Indigenous partners, stakeholder/advocacy groups representing vulnerable people and human rights experts, and involve them in provincial planning tables and committees.
  2. Provide specific and detailed guidance to law enforcement to ensure that COVID-19 prevention measures are not implemented in a way that disproportionately targets or penalizes people who have difficulty or are unable to follow physical distancing restrictions and other requirements, such as people experiencing homelessness and people with certain types of disabilities. Guidance should also include appropriate ways to promote education and awareness.
  3. Identify indicators and collect data to measure whether the Plan, including these additional actions, is benefiting high-risk and vulnerable populations.
  4. Report publicly and regularly on the implementation status of the Plan, including these additional actions, in detail, including the results of the data collected to measure whether the Plan is benefiting high-risk and vulnerable populations.

The OHRC appreciates the ever-evolving circumstances surrounding COVID-19, and understands that the government is working to address issues on many fronts. However, as many experts note, the spread of COVID-19 among Ontario’s most vulnerable populations could prove catastrophic. Taking the recommended actions as soon as possible can help limit the spread of the virus while continuing to uphold Ontario’s human rights obligations.

Sincerely,

Raj Dhir
Executive Director

cc:    Hon. Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Long-Term Care
Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health
Matthew Anderson, President and CEO of Ontario Health
Hon. Doug Downey, Attorney General
Violetta Igneski, OHRC Commissioner
Randall Arsenault, OHRC Commissioner

NT5

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