Opinion: Ottawa Public Health needs to disclose workplace outbreaks

OPH has continued to allow businesses to escape accountability for COVID-19 outbreaks by ensuring they remain unnamed

Ottawa Citizen 3 minute read June 17, 2021

Amazon warehouse in Ottawa. Jean Levac / Postmedia

There have been 149 workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 during the pandemic in Ottawa, which have resulted in 934 cases and six deaths. However, you wouldn’t know this even if you were an engaged member of the community. That’s because Ottawa Public Health has continued to obfuscate the role of workplaces in community outbreaks.

Local public health units are responsible for the publication of workplace outbreaks in Ontario.

Following demands from labour activists and epidemiologists, many municipalities, such as Toronto and Peel, began to publish the names of workplaces with outbreaks. But Ottawa Public Health has resisted these calls, maintaining that publishing businesses violates privacy and could contribute to stigma.

There is certainly a need to prevent workers from being stigmatized. But this should not be weaponized to excuse major corporations from being held accountable for the deaths and outbreaks in the city.

Journalists and the engaged public primarily get COVID-19 data from OPH’s Daily COVID-19 Dashboard. For the health-care and education sectors, the total number of cases, outbreaks and deaths are clearly reported. But inexplicably, these totals are not listed for “community outbreaks,” a category that aggregates private social gatherings, apartment outbreaks and workplace outbreaks. This absence of information fails to create a clear picture of how COVID-19 has ravaged Ottawa, resulting in unnecessary death and illness.

The absence of information is particularly bleak considering the advocacy of the City of Ottawa in reopening businesses. While we still don’t have data surrounding the wider community impact of outbreaks and superspreader events, we do know that many of these outbreaks were preventable. Consider the data that is available to us: Was it really worth opening movie theatres for a worker to die? Which corporate offices were so essential to open that there were 135 cases?

OPH has continued to allow businesses to escape accountability for COVID-19 outbreaks by ensuring they remain unnamed. Businesses need to be held accountable for their working conditions and transparent with the community.

Take Amazon distribution centres in Ontario, for example. It’s unknown how many cases and outbreaks there have been at Ottawa’s Amazon distribution centre. We only know of a case from a worker who anonymously came forward to share their story about the stressful work conditions. During its first known COVID-19 outbreak, a local Amazon worker expressed concerns over poor communication about the positive case, and ongoing challenges complying with public health orders.

More than a year later, a worker at the same distribution centre raised similar concerns about the dangerous working conditions there. Amazon has continuously failed to keep workers safe. Where is the accountability?

Other public health units have been more responsive and transparent. In Toronto and Peel, public health units have intervened on behalf of workers to shut down operations at Amazon distribution centres where outbreaks have continued to put workers at risk. These decisions saved lives, whereas OPH has continued to be needlessly hesitant.

We should not have to rely on precarious, low-wage workers taking a risk to approach media and putting their jobs on the line to know when outbreaks are happening in workplaces. Ottawa Public Health needs to do its job, protect these workers, and start holding businesses accountable by publicly disclosing where outbreaks occur.

Megan Linton (she/her) is a policy researcher, writer and disability advocate.

Sam Hersh is a community and political organizer based in Ottawa. He is on the board of directors of Horizon Ottawa, a local grassroots organization that focuses on municipal issues.

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