Immigration During COVID-19 – Why Foreign Workers Play a Critical Role in Canada’s Health System

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the critical role of frontline workers. In particular, healthcare workers saw the consequences of the disease firsthand. While hospitals dealt with a surge of patients and long-term care facilities became the epicentre of many of the country’s deadliest outbreaks.

The Canadian health system depends on immigration. Immigration during COVID-19 needs to continue. Temporary foreign workers, permanent residents, and new citizens make up a significant percentage of the health care workforce. In this article, we’ll look at how these groups have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. As well as what Canada’s immigration and health systems should consider as we move through the first wave of the pandemic.

The Importance of Immigration in Canadian Healthcare

According to the 2016 Census, more than 335,000 immigrants work in health-related occupations. While doctors and nurses primarily come to mind as healthcare workers, there are countless people who work in healthcare facilities in less visible but equally critical roles. These individuals include custodians, security guards, porters, cafeteria workers, nurses’ aids, physiotherapists, personal support workers (PSWs), administration workers, and other supporting roles. Though sometimes behind the scenes, they are all on the frontline in the battle against coronavirus.

For example, PSWs play a crucial role in supporting Canada’s aging population. Many are immigrants and work in multiple long-term care facilities or with multiple families as in-home caregivers. Thus making them especially vulnerable to the health risks and financial consequences of COVID-19.

Nursing also depends on immigration, and it will continue to as Canada prepares for a shortage of registered nurses. As far back as 2009, the Canadian Nurses Association warned that Canada could see a shortage of 60,000 full-time equivalent registered nurses (RNs) by 2022.

In the lead up to the pandemic, provincial governments had been cutting RNs. This is despite the number of nurses failing to keep up with population growth and demand. Partly because of this, Canada’s health system was not prepared for an emergency of this magnitude.

Strengthening Canada’s Health System

Immigration plays an important role in addressing shortages and strengthening our health system. According to HealthForceOntario, there are currently 13,000 foreign-educated doctors and 6,000 foreign-educated nurses in Ontario alone who are not working in their fields. Many others have been educated in their home country but are unable to practice in Canada .

As we have discussed before, Canada has extremely strict education requirements for people immigrating as skilled migrants. Professionals who earned their degrees in another country, such as doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers, and engineers, may find that their education is not deemed to be equivalent to one received in Canada. This may impact their ability to work in their field upon arriving in Canada.

In response to this challenge and the increased need for healthcare professionals due to COVID-19, Ontario introduced a short-term license allowing some foreign-trained physicians to practice under supervision.

In June, the Canadian Government announced that it was working on a temporary measure to grant permanent residency to asylum seekers. These asylum seekers are the ones who worked in healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Federal Government’s discussions about this program are currently ongoing, the move recognizes the contributions of foreign workers across all sectors of the health system in the wake of COVID-19.

The Risks of Being a Frontline Worker

When considering Immigration during COVID-19, it’s important to remember the risks these individuals face every time they go to work. One report from Ontario showed that healthcare workers made up 1 in 10 known cases, while a more recent figure from Ottawa suggests the number was as high as 28 percent.

We’ve also seen that, in other countries, the virus disproportionately affects people of colour and other vulnerable populations, including immigrants and foreign workers. Though this data isn’t available for Canada yet, it is reasonable to believe that we’ll see similar outcomes.

Many foreign workers are therefore having to balance the need to continue working and earning money with the risk of contracting the virus. This is compounding the fact that work permits have a connection to one’s employer. Meaning workers who are let go due to the virus, fall ill, or feel unsafe are particularly vulnerable. This causes a risk of losing their ability to legally remain in Canada.

Immigration During COVID-19

Both federal and provincial governments must consider how Canada will act going forward. While the programs being put in place and debated are designed as immediate and short-term solutions, COVID-19 has shown that there is much room for improvement. How we encourage skilled immigration, increase protection for foreign workers in essential roles, and fill shortages across the entire health system are questions that need to be answered.

Immigration during COVID-19 plays an important role in healthcare. All individuals serving on the frontline, regardless of their role in the health care system, must be protected to ensure that everyone can get the care that they need.

Ashley Fisch B.A., J.D. is an Associate at Kaminker & Associates Immigration Law in Toronto, Ontario, Canada