Day: March 28, 2020

Basic Income’s Lessons For Health Care’s ‘$1,007 Sandwich’

Poverty has long weighed on Hugh Segal’s mind. For decades, the former senator has been a vocal champion for a guaranteed basic income to lift the country’s poorest out of the cycle of poverty. He credits his formative years, growing up in an immigrant family in Montreal’s working-class Plateau neighbourhood, for sowing the seeds of his advocacy.

“What bothers me the most about [poverty] is the amount of people whose lives are being wasted because they’re caught in a scramble of too many jobs, too little pay, insufficient resources to cover rent, food, transport, clothes,” he said, in an interview. “Their kids pay a huge price, and it produces all kinds of difficulties.” 

Poverty doesn’t affect only low-income earners, he added. To illustrate his point, the former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney shared an anecdote about the cost of preventable illnesses to a public health-care system. He called it “the $1,007 sandwich and bowl of soup.”

Former senator Hugh Segal, author of

The story goes that researchers at a Toronto hospital studying population health noticed a trend among some lower-income patients who would show up in the emergency room. The cases seemed to be a chronic illness, but after triage, staff believed what the patient would benefit most from was a bit of advice and a bowl of soup and a sandwich. 

“Seven dollars for the hot bowl of soup and sandwich, $1,000 for what it cost to do the triage to figure out what [their] health circumstance was when [they] showed up,” Segal explained. There’s plenty of research to support this, showing low-income people are at a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and chronic illnesses than Canada’s richest 20 per cent. Segal’s point is clear: When people don’t have resources, they don’t have resilience — and that affects everyone. 

* * *

I spoke to Segal at the end of February. Two weeks later, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Stories from overworked Italian doctors warned the world to move past nationwide nonchalance and take preventative measures seriously. In less than three weeks, the highly contagious respiratory disease had stretched that country’s health system beyond its limits, bringing it to its knees.

On March 12, the NBA suspended the rest of its season after a player tested positive for COVID-19. That same evening, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, was diagnosed with the disease after developing flu-like symptoms days after speaking at a high-profile London, U.K., arena event. Actor Idris Elba also tested positive, after posing for a picture with her there. 

A sign telling people how to prevent COVID-19 by staying home, sits in the empty downtown, in Edmonton on March 26, 2020.

By the end of the week, office workers were being told to work from home on the advice of health officials. Panicked shoppers cleaned out toilet paper and pasta from grocery store shelves. Social distancing became a ubiquitous term overnight. One by one, municipalities and provinces declared states of emergency. Health works urged us to #FlattenTheCurve. Countries around the world announced border closures and restrictions on non-essential travel. We’ve been told to cancel dinner plans with family and friends and to move them online. Stores, restaurants and bars began to announce temporary shutdowns on their Instagram pages. Then workers, particularly those in the tourism, travel and hospitality industries, started getting laid off.

“The economic impacts of the pandemic will be brutal,” Canada’s parliamentary budget officer, Yves Giroux, tweeted, hours after the federal government announced a $82-billion financial assistance package to mitigate the financial shock caused by an entire country being grounded home for an undetermined period of time. A week later, the value of that announced aid package had risen to $107 billion and tens of billions more were to be spent to help small and medium-sized businesses.

Members of the House of Commons attend an emergency sitting on March 24, 2020 in Ottawa.

Academics and advocates from around the world have used this moment to urge political leaders to see the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to “save lives” and test a universal basic income

With the economy unfurling at the mercy of the current COVID-19 public health crisis, the Canadian government has introduced new measures to get money directly into people’s pockets. It’s a live test of a kind of guaranteed basic income. Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough told the Canadian Press recently it could be a preview of a new normal

“This could be the impetus to really, radically simplify how people access income support from the federal government,” she said.

The basics of basic income

It’s a concept of many names.

Guaranteed basic/liveable income is the idea that there should be a social welfare program in place to, like its name suggests, guarantee everyone a sufficient minimum to access the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing and shelter. 

There are two ways a guaranteed minimum income can be transferred directly to individuals or couples.

One avenue is through a universal basic income, where everybody gets a cheque. This flat amount would be given to all citizens, regardless of their employment or financial situation. 

The other option is a negative income tax. Eligibility is based on a person’s employment or financial situation. Families with no income are eligible for the maximum amount to reach a baseline minimum income. To implement this, governments would have to decide on a baseline income (for example, the market basket measure, which is Canada’s official poverty line) as a measure of minimum support. Any income above would be taxable. Anything below would be eligible for a top-up to meet that baseline level, similar to the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low-income seniors. 

Guaranteed income for emergencies

The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 has forced countries to think on their feet — and to be open to putting cash into people’s pockets, quickly. In the U.S., the Trump administration has put together a $2-trillion stimulus package that includes one-time $1,200 payments to every American adult who earns less than $75,000, plus an additional $500 per child, to help get people financially through the pandemic. 

U.S. President Donald Trump signs H.R. 748, the CARES Act in the Oval Office of the White House on March 27, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Canada has promised a suite of targeted measures, including two kinds of direct payments: a top-up of its child benefit and the Goods and Services Tax credit to help low and modest income earners. A new Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has also been introduced as a safety net for impacted workers who are not eligible for employment insurance. It promises monthly, $2,000 cheques, for up to four months, to Canadians who’ve earned at least $5,000 in the previous year and have seen their income drop to zero because of the COVID-19 crisis. The money is taxable, reported as income and progressively taxed next year.

A senior official in the prime minister’s office told HuffPost Canada they favoured the CERB’s targeted approach because it allowed the government to give more money to those who need it most, rather than spread the cash thinly to everybody, including those whose incomes are unaffected by the pandemic. HuffPost is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the topic.

 Watch: Here’s who qualifies for Canada’s COVID-19 relief benefit. Story continues below.


One factor repeatedly cited by officials is the need to get cash out quickly and the fact the government has no database with every Canadian’s address. 

Another factor was timing. There may come a time, one official said, when the government does decide to send money to those affected by the pandemic or not to help pump the economy. But right now, with mainstreet shopping sprees temporarily verboten and scores of businesses on hiatus until further notice — where would those with extra cash spend it?

‘I can’t stockpile,’ says ex-basic income recipient

When coronavirus panic shopping became a thing, Ashley was constantly reminded of not having the financial means to buy her own emergency reserve of food. The viral photos and videos of people hoarding groceries annoyed her. “I can’t stockpile,” she said. “Where’s my help?” 

The single mother, who didn’t want her full name published because of concerns about the stigma of being on welfare, lives in subsidized housing in Hamilton with her 13-year-old son. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, her income comes solely from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) cheques she gets at the end of each month. She is not eligible for the government’s new $2,000 monthly CERB payments. The Ontario government has promised new discretionary benefits for those on social assistance, but details are thin.

“There is really nothing available,” she said about COVID-19-related support for those on social assistance. “No increase in cheques either.”

She receives less than $21,000 annually. It takes careful budgeting to make sure she meets her basic needs and those of her autistic son. “There’s more month at the end of my money,” she joked over the phone. 

Ashley was one of 4,000 participants in Ontario’s cancelled basic income pilot project launched by the previous provincial Liberal government. She qualified because she earned less than $34,000 annually and lived in Hamilton, one of the three regions researchers selected for the pilot. Couples qualified if they earned $48,000 or less, collectively.

Watch: Photographer chronicles scrapped basic income pilot. Story continues below.


Participants were given top-ups scaled to their income: The more you earned, the smaller your basic income cheque would be. Single people could earn up to an additional $16,989 per year. Couples were eligible for up to an extra $24,027. As a single participant on disability, Ashley received an extra $500 per month during the pilot. It was intended to run for three years. 

By the pilot’s design, basic income cheques were reduced by 50 per cent for every dollar participants earned in employment income. You would be able to keep your hard-earned money, get a slimmer top-up, preserving the incentive to work. This was a remarkably different rubric to the one followed by Ontario Works, the province’s welfare program.

Under existing rules, adult welfare recipients are taxed 50 per cent on all earnings after the first $200 in employment income. The high taxation rate, according to anti-poverty advocates and social assistance recipients, leaves many feeling trapped.

“When I was on basic income I wasn’t using food banks,” Ashley said, adding that she wasn’t stressing about having enough money to buy bread. “My mental health went up. My morale went up … I was actually shopping at the grocery store.”

The extra $500 that basic income put in her pocket every month gave her the financial peace-of-mind to choose nutritious foods. 

Her son loves apples and bananas, so she prioritizes those items on her grocery list and other healthy foods because she believes a good diet will keep them out of the hospital. “I still do a lot of home-cooked meals where there’s chicken, rice and veggies,” she said. “There’s always salad and cucumbers in the house.”

Ashley found out about the pilot’s cancellation on Facebook. 

“I was stressed out for months because I was worried that I wasn’t going to get reapproved for disability,” she said. “One month I had basic income and the next I didn’t.”

She had spent four years in college earning two diplomas in medical office administration and legal assisting, but was unable to get a job in those fields because employers wanted three to five years of experience for entry positions. So she took a customer care representative job at a call centre. She quit in 2016, just before the basic income pilot project started. Being repeatedly verbally harassed by angry customers over the phone led to a mental health decline, she explained.

After the basic income project ended, Ashley was reapproved for disability payments. She tried to get a job but couldn’t find another employer to hire her.

One month I had basic income and the next I didn’t.Hamilton resident Ashley Kathleen

The government mistakenly sent her an extra disability cheque when she transitioned back to the program. Ashley has been pandemic planning on a slimmer cheque of about $1,400 after the monthly clawback. Her senior mother sometimes helped with extra groceries, but now that’s on hold because her mom is staying indoors.

Ashley is one of 13,000 people who rely on food banks every month in Hamilton. Her monthly disability cheque doesn’t cover everything. 

She pays her bills, utilities and rent first. If it’s winter, heating is another high-priority payment. Hospital checkups for her and her son come with compounded taxi or bus expenses. If there’s an emergency or unexpected expense, it’s the grocery budget that gets cut so she can afford everything else. Some months, the food budget is trimmed so tight, she has to go to four food banks, where you can pick up three days’ worth per visit, to make sure there’s enough to eat.

And there are old student loans to repay.

I’m sitting in this spot of limbo where no one really seems to care.Ashley, single mother in Hamilton receiving ODSP

“I’ve been out of school for about six years and my student loan debt is still over $11,000,” she said. The bills keep coming and the interest keeps growing.

When her $1,400 cheque comes in at the end of March, she said she’ll have to choose between buying groceries and paying off her credit card bill. She doesn’t have enough to cover both. “I’m sitting in this spot of limbo where no one really seems to care,” she said. 

“We’re drowning here.”

Poverty’s $13-billion imprint

During the 17 months the program existed, researchers at McMaster University found Ontario basic income participants, like Ashley, made a “noticeable impact on the use of health services.” There were “less frequent visits to health practitioners and hospital emergency rooms,” according to a March report. Nearly 80 per cent reported that their health improved while they received basic income payments.

On top of health improvements, participants reported their sense of self-worth increased and their outlook on life brightened. The extra money also allowed some to put in time and effort into finding different jobs. “The majority of those employed before the pilot reported working while they were receiving basic income. Many reported moving to higher paying and more secure jobs,” the report read. 

An Ottawa-based non-profit Canada Without Poverty published a report a few years ago that estimated poverty “costs” provincial, territorial and the federal governments up to $13 billion annually, when health care, the criminal justice system and loss of productivity figures are factored.

A member of the cleaning staff prepares beds for surgery recovery at the Hinton Healthcare Centre in Hinton, Canada on Sept. 9, 2019. 

Despite countless studies and reports touting the merits of a basic income as an alternative to a myriad of social assistance programs, the idea continues to face stigma. Skeptics often turn to anecdotes, claiming income-topping cheques will kill the incentive to work. Some claim regular basic income payments will turn able-bodied low-income workers into “ski bums.” 

This is a point that has former senator Segal cheesed.

“[There are people] who have talked themselves into believing that if you pay people to do nothing they will do nothing, and they will not work, where there isn’t a scintilla of evidence to back that up,” he said. “In fact, as you and I are talking on the phone, 70 per cent of the people who live beneath the poverty line in this country have a job. Some have more than one.”

Poverty and pandemic planning 

There are more than 3.2 million people living in poverty, according to 2018 data from Statistics Canada. That’s 8.7 per cent of the country’s population. But poverty isn’t distributed equally across the country. 

There is more poverty in rural communities. Indigenous children also live in poverty at a disproportionately higher level — as high as 35 per cent, double the national average. Lower-income families in Toronto and Vancouver are particularly vulnerable to swings in the economy, according to 2016 Statistics Canada. Poorer families in those two cities have about four dollars of debt for every dollar of after-tax income because mortgages are skewed higher in those real estate markets than the rest of the country, which increases household debt.

A man stands in the window of an upper floor condo as people have been urged to stay home to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Vancouver on March 24, 2020.

Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, thinks a universal basic income would have been a strong buttress to build resilience against the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve been talking for years around the fact that people are only $200 away from not being able to make their needs. And now that reality, sadly, has come home to roost. We need to get money to people quickly.”

An Ipsos poll last year indeed showed that nearly half (48 per cent) of Canadians are less than $200 away from insolvency. It’s a statistic that policymakers will have to keep close to them as they try to build programs to stymie the economic impact of widespread social distancing.

New CERB payments could come as quick as 48 hours

Kevin Milligan, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics, said the government’s multi-pronged financial package is a bundle of policies that suggests the government is prioritizing expediency above all else right now.

It makes sense to increase the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) and GST tax credit, Milligan said, because those two databases are established and updated on a monthly and quarterly basis. It’s an easy way to get money into the pockets of people who may need it. The CCB is essentially basic income for people with kids, he said.

“This is as fast as the [government says it] can go within an existing system,” Milligan told HuffPost Canada.

File photo of Canada Revenue Agency headquarters in Ottawa.

If the government were to design a new transfer, for example, with the idea of giving a $1,000 to every Canadian, a big challenge would be getting a database up and running with accurate information. “The hard part isn’t where do we get the money, [it’s] how do we design this thing,” he said. “The hard part is the mechanics of the government part.”

“Thirty-seven million Canadians, a thousand dollars each, that’s $37 billion,” Milligan said. “If you take that $37 billion and you target it to the middle and low earners that are getting the CCB and GST tax credit, you can give them more for the same budget.”

Within a week of the government’s initial COVID-19 relief package announcement, nearly a million people applied for employment insurance (EI), the official told HuffPost. That’s a significant increase compared to the 2008 financial crisis when Service Canada saw a peak of 35,000-40,000 EI requests in one week.

Sources say the decision to shift the program from an expanded version of employment insurance to a flat amount available to more people with fewer strings attached was made in part because the EI system was overwhelmed. Delivering the program through the CRA, which processes millions of tax returns each year, was seen to be more dependable. Tests are currently underway to gauge the CRA’s IT system’s ability to process and deliver millions of new claims and payments before the system goes live on April 6. The money will be retroactively available to March 15. 

People who opt to receive the CERB through cheques should expect the first payment within 10 days. And, if everything goes smoothly, those who choose direct deposit could see money in their accounts as quickly as 48 hours after they file their application.

Four million people are expected to apply for the new federal COVID-19 emergency benefit, according to The Globe and Mail.

Renaissance idea for contemporary poverty

The idea of a guaranteed income has existed for more than 500 years. English philosopher Thomas More proposed the idea in his book Utopia when he likened the treatment of the poor by the wealthy to teachers who preferred to cane students over teaching them. 

“Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse,” More wrote.

This Renaissance idea found life in modern pilots launched all around the world. In Stockton, Calif., the 23 per cent poverty rate prompted the city to offer $500 debit cards to the city’s poorest. 

 Watch: The city giving away free money. Story continues below video.


Researchers in Finland, a country with a poverty rate of a fraction of a percentage point, found the economic benefits of a basic income were nominal, but researchers there acknowledged more money led to “clearly fewer problems related to health, stress, mood and concentration.” Early observations in Kenya’s long-term experiment involving nearly 200 villages show people spent the extra “free money” (approximately $40 CAD monthly) on savings and necessities such as fertilizer and extra food in their kids’ lunches.

Segal praises these radical efforts to help people, calling basic income the most “efficient, humane, non-stigmatizing” way to alleviate poverty. 

“You don’t keep on doing the same thing time and time again hoping to produce another result because that’s the definition of insanity,” he said, of the ongoing maintenance of a matrix of social assistance programs in Canada. “You have to try something new.”

* * *

It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

– Former U.S. vice-president Hubert Humphrey

* * *

Challenging situations in the past have paved the way to benefit programs we continue to see today. 

An income tax was introduced after the First World War to help Canada pay for its war efforts. It was intended to be temporary, but then the government realized this new revenue stream could fund social programs. Old Age Security was one of those programs, designed to help boost the incomes of poor seniors who found themselves out of work with factories favouring younger employees, dependent on their children for support. 

Employment insurance was introduced a year after the start of the Second World War. Memories of extreme poverty seen in the Depression years motivated Canada’s efforts to protect workers from temporary job loss.

Today, there are 55 programs designed to help low-income earners, families, and members of other vulnerable groups in Canada. Advocates have argued that quasi-basic income cheques such as Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and the Canada Child Benefit could be collapsed into one cash-transfer program for efficiency’s sake.

According to the parliamentary budget officer (PBO), federal support for these 55 programs cost $56.8 billion in 2017-18. In a 2018 report, the PBO studied how much money it would take to implement a federal basic income, modelled after Ontario’s pilot project, to essentially eliminate poverty in Canada overnight.

The PBO found it would cost $76 billion to get a federal basic income program off the ground and running in its first year. After that, the net cost would be $44 billion annually. Bear in mind, these numbers were crunched at a time when a public health pandemic didn’t threaten the livelihoods of millions of people, which is the situation countless people are currently facing. 

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux waits to appear before the Commons finance committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 10, 2020.

The PBO suggested if the federal and provincial governments worked together additional savings could be achieved. “This would replace some provincial transfers for low-income individuals and families including many non-refundable and refundable tax credits, thereby reducing its net cost.”

But now, due to the global pandemic, governments around the world are looking to get money to people quickly and directly and the idea of a basic income may become an easier sell to the public and to Parliament.

Call for new Senate study

In a speech in the upper chamber this February, Sen. Kim Pate urged her colleagues to give the idea a fair debate.

“We have made it harder and harder for people to get themselves out of poverty in this country,” Pate said, in an interview outside the Senate before Parliament’s suspension. Layers of eligibility requirements and technicalities have entrapped people in poverty, she said.

“Very few social workers went to school so they could police people’s morality and their income — and that’s what they end up doing mostly,” the lawyer and former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies said. She said they’re basically “figuring out whether someone deserves to get their social assistance cheque, [or] whether it should be clawed back.”

If it sounds a little bit like déjà vu, that’s because it is. Fifty years ago, a guaranteed annual income was first proposed by Canada’s Senate as a credible way of addressing poverty in the country. In the 1970s, it was piloted in Dauphin, Man., and temporarily eliminated poverty there. Basic income has never been implemented on a provincial or territorial, let alone national level.

Doctor says income is top concern he hears

Dr. Tim O’Shea has lived in Hamilton for 20 years. He’s worked with some of the city’s most marginalized residents, some who face homelessness, struggle with addiction and rely on provincial social assistance. Though the threat of the continued spread of the novel coronavirus is certainly on the minds of many, O’Shea said it’s not the No. 1 priority for many patients he deals with.

“Their top concern right now really is food security with the shutdown of a lot of feeding centres. Where they’re going to be; where they’re going to sleep; how can they socially distance from other people in a shelter setting.” The underlying concern to all that is income, he said.

There’s good evidence that a universal basic income is beneficial to people’s health in general, outside of a pandemic.Dr. Tim O’Shea

Public health officials aren’t taking any chances. In Hamilton, non-essential programming at the Mission Services has been cancelled, and its East Hamilton Food Centre has been temporarily closed. Hamilton Out of the Cold, a community non-profit that provides free hot meals to the hungry across the city, has cancelled its volunteer-run breakfast and dinner programs to minimize the risk of COVID-19 community spread. 

A man sits for a meal served at The Sanctuary Drop-In Centre in Toronto on March 26, 2020. People who work with the city's homeless say more are on the streets because many drop-in and respite sites, have warned of an

O’Shea, an associate professor at McMaster University’s department of medicine, said he supports the idea of a basic income to help society’s most vulnerable people. 

“There’s good evidence that a universal basic income is beneficial to people’s health in general, outside of a pandemic. There’s certainly no reason to think that it wouldn’t be even more beneficial in a setting where there’s more income insecurity, more food insecurity like we’re experiencing now.” 

In the long run, O’Shea believes a basic income could theoretically help offload preventable illnesses from an already taxed health-care system — one that likely prefers $7 sandwiches and soups to the avertable $1,000 health-care system combo that sometimes goes with it.

With files from Althia Raj

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What counts as ‘urgent’ in a pandemic? From children’s aid to custody cases, Ontario family courts adjust to COVID-19

What counts as ‘urgent’ in a pandemic? From children’s aid to custody cases, Ontario family courts adjust to COVID-19

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AP News in Brief at 12:04 a.m. EDT

Trump signs $2.2T stimulus after swift congressional votes

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump signed an unprecedented $2.2 trillion economic rescue package into law Friday, after swift and near-unanimous action by Congress to support businesses, rush resources to overburdened health care providers and help struggling families during the deepening coronavirus epidemic.

Acting with unity and resolve unseen since the 9-11 attacks, Washington moved urgently to stem an economic free fall caused by widespread restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus that have shuttered schools, closed businesses and brought American life in many places to a virtual standstill.

“This will deliver urgently needed relief,” Trump said as he signed the bill in the Oval Office, flanked only by Republican lawmakers. He thanked members of both parties for putting Americans “first.”

Earlier Friday, the House gave near-unanimous approval by voice vote after an impassioned session conducted along the social distancing guidelines imposed by the crisis. Many lawmakers sped to Washington to participate — their numbers swollen after a maverick Republican signalled he’d try to force a roll call vote — though dozens of others remained safely in their home districts.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously late Wednesday.


What you need to know today about the virus outbreak

America’s coronavirus infections have surged to the most in the world, reaching 100,000 cases Friday with New York still the worst hit in the country. Troubling new outbreaks are bubbling in other cities including Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans, which is rushing to build a makeshift hospital in its convention centre.

The U.S. House Friday approved a $2.2 trillion rescue package that was immediately signed by President Trump in a shared effort to shore up a U.S. economy and health care system left flailing by the coronavirus pandemic.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first leader of a major country to test positive and Italy has shut down its industry. Masses of unemployed Indian labourers were getting food handouts and South Africa has begun a three-week lockdown.

Here are some of AP’s top stories Friday on the world’s coronavirus pandemic. Follow for updates through the day and for stories explaining some of its complexities.



Trump boosts virus aid, warns governors to be ‘appreciative’

WASHINGTON (AP) — After days of desperate pleas from the nation’s governors, President Donald Trump took a round of steps Friday to expand the federal government’s role in helping produce critically needed supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic even as he warned the leaders of hard-hit states not to cross him.

“I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said after the White House announced that he would be using the powers granted to him under the Korean War-era Defence Production Act to try to compel auto giant General Motors to produce ventilators.

Yet Trump — who hours earlier had suggested the need for the devices was being overblown — rejected any criticism of the federal government’s response to a ballooning public health crisis that a month ago he predicted would be over by now.

“We have done a hell of a job,” Trump said, as he sent an ominous message to state and local leaders who have been urging the federal government to do more to help them save lives.

Trump said he had instructed Vice-President Mike Pence not to call the governors of Washington or Michigan — two coronavirus hotspots — because of their public criticism. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said.


US eyes new outbreaks as infections worldwide top 590,000

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans rushed to build a makeshift hospital in its convention centre Friday as troubling new outbreaks bubbled in the United States, deaths surged in Italy and Spain and the world warily trudged through the pandemic that has sickened more than a half-million people.

In a reminder no one is immune to the new coronavirus, it pierced even the highest echelons of global power as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first leader of a major country to test positive.

As the death toll continued to climb in France, health workers there received a huge show of gratitude — from the Eiffel Tower. “Merci,” French for ‘Thank you,” and “Stay at home” in English were emblazoned in lights at night on Paris’ world-famous landmark.

The escalation of cases worldwide came as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared a new rapid test from Abbott Laboratories, which the company says can detect the coronavirus in about 5 minutes. Medical device maker Abbott announced the emergency clearance of its cartridge-based test Friday night, saying the test delivers a negative result in 13 minutes when the virus is not detected.

While New York remained the worst hit city in the U.S., Americans braced for worsening conditions elsewhere, with worrisome infection numbers being reported in New Orleans, Chicago and Detroit.


States impose new restrictions on travellers from New York

BOSTON (AP) — States are pulling back the welcome mat for travellers from the New York area, which is the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, but some say at least one state’s measures are unconstitutional.

Governors in Texas, Florida, Maryland and South Carolina this week ordered people arriving from the New York area —including New Jersey and Connecticut — and other virus hot spots to self-quarantine for at least 14 days upon arrival.

Connecticut officials have also pleaded with New Yorkers and others from out of state to avoid visiting unless absolutely necessary.

But, in the most dramatic steps taken to date, Rhode Island State Police on Friday began pulling over drivers with New York plates so that National Guard officials can collect contact information and inform them of a mandatory, 14-day quarantine.

Gov. Gina Raimondo ratcheted up the measures Friday afternoon, announcing she’ll also order the state National Guard to go door-to-door in coastal communities starting this weekend to find out whether any of the home’s residents have recently arrived from New York and inform them of the quarantine order.


Trump seeks to force General Motors to produce ventilators

DETROIT (AP) — President Donald Trump issued an order Friday that seeks to force General Motors to produce ventilators for coronavirus patients under the Defence Production Act.

Trump said negotiations with General Motors had been productive, “but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course.”

Trump, who had previously been reluctant to use the act to force businesses to contribute to the coronavirus fight, said “GM was wasting time” and that his actions will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives.

GM is among the farthest along of U.S. companies trying to repurpose factories to build ventilators. It is working with Ventec Life Systems, a small Seattle-area ventilator maker, to increase the company’s production and GM will use its auto electronics plant in Kokomo, Indiana to make the machines.

Experts say that no matter how many ventilators companies can crank out, it may not be enough to cover the entire need, and it may not come in time to help areas now being hit hard with critical virus cases.


AP Sources: Alleged Maduro co-conspirator is in DEA custody

MIAMI (AP) — A retired Venezuelan army general indicted alongside Nicolás Maduro has surrendered in Colombia and is being taken by Drug Enforcement Administration agents to New York for arraignment, four people familiar with the situation said Friday.

Cliver Alcalá has been an outspoken critic of Maduro for years. But he was charged Thursday with allegedly running with Maduro, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello and another retired army general a narcoterrorist conspiracy that U.S. prosecutors say sent 250 metric tons of cocaine a year to the U.S. and turned the Venezuelan state into a platform for violent cartels and Colombia rebels. The Justice Department had offered a $10 million reward for Alcalá’s arrest.

Alcalá was being flown on a chartered plane to the U.S. from Barranquilla, Colombia, after waiving an extradition hearing and agreeing to collaborate with prosecutors, said the four people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss actions that had not yet been made public.

Alcalá has been living in the coastal city since fleeing Venezuela in 2018 after the discovery of a conspiracy that he was secretly leading in hopes of ousting Maduro.

After being indicted Thursday, Alcalá shocked many by claiming responsibility for a stockpile of U.S.-made assault weapons and military equipment seized on a highway in Colombia for what he said was a planned incursion into Venezuela to remove Maduro. Without offering evidence, he said he had a contract with opposition leader Juan Guaidó and his “American advisers” to purchase the weapons.


NYC subway driver killed in fire being investigated as crime

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City subway driver was killed and several other people were injured early Friday in a fire on a train that is being investigated as a crime, officials said.

Fires were reported at three other stations nearby at the same time, police said.

“We are investigating it as a criminal matter,” Deputy Chief Brian McGee said, adding that no arrests have been made.

The fire killed a motorman who was helping passengers to safety, officials said, and came the day after two of his fellow New York City Transit employees fell victim to the coronavirus.

“As all of you know, this has already been a devastating week for New York City Transit,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of the agency that runs the city’s buses and subways. “And this is another horrific moment for our family.”


The Latest: Brunei reports first coronavirus-related death

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.


— South Korea reports 146 new cases but number of recoveries now exceed those under treatment

— U.S. government turns to public, private partnerships to continue feeding students.

— FDA clears rapid test that can detect coronavirus in 5 minutes.


NOT REAL NEWS: Debunking yet more false coronavirus content

A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:


CLAIM: Nancy Pelosi snuck $25 million worth of pay raises for Congress into the federal relief bill intended to help Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic.

THE FACTS: A proposal in the economic rescue package sets aside $25 million for the House of Representatives but “none of those funds will go to member salaries,” Evan Hollander, the communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, told The Associated Press. After the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package late Wednesday night (it was signed into law Friday), social media users began inaccurately claiming that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had secretly stuck in $25 million worth of congressional pay raises. That was not the case. The $25 million appropriation for “salary and expenses” in the House of Representatives was proposed in both versions of the relief package — a GOP-backed proposal earlier in the week and the plan passed by the U.S. Senate Wednesday. The money will be used to buy new equipment and make upgrades to the network so members and their staff can work remotely, Hollander said. It will also be spent on reimbursing costs of the child care centre and food service contracts for the House, as well as paying for the House Sergeant-at-Arms, he added. Congressional pay can be raised annually based on a federal cost-of-living formula. However, Congress has voted to reject those increases since 2009, keeping their salaries frozen at $174,000 for a decade.


The Associated Press

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By The Wall of Law March 28, 2020 Off

Rural Officials Tell City-Dwellers Not To Self-Isolate At Remote Cottages

Rural health-care providers and small-town politicians are pleading with snowbirds and city-dwellers to stay at their primary homes during the COVID-19 pandemic rather than self-isolating in more remote locales and putting additional strain on a system that’s already stretched to the limit.

Doctors practising far away from large urban centres say they’re already grappling with serious shortages of testing kits, protective equipment and other tools necessary to battle the outbreak that’s sickened thousands across the country and brought everyday life to a virtual standstill.

An influx of new arrivals into their small communities, they argue, risks taxing those limited resources even further while greatly increasing the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus among an especially vulnerable population.

“Here we are with facilities that cope reasonably well with 3,500 (people) suddenly facing a situation which, if it goes the way that the rest of the countries in the world seem to be going, could suddenly see us with a hopelessly inadequate supply of physicians, facilities, materials,” said Dr. George Harpur, a family physician with a practice in Tobermory, Ont.       

Poorly equipped

Harpur said many cottage-country communities, including his, have learned to ramp up staffing levels and services from hospitals to grocery stores during the summer months when affluent urban residents flock en masse to their secondary homes.

But those resources simply aren’t in place at this time of year, he said, leaving communities poorly equipped to accommodate the early arrival of seasonal residents at the best of times. Add a global pandemic into the mix, he said, and the situation becomes dangerous for all.

A nursing home in the small Ontario town of Bobcaygeon, for instance, is currently home to the province’s largest concentration of cases.

Two residents have died of COVID-19, which also sickened 14 staff members. After identifying three positive cases in the home, the top doctor at the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit said no more tests were administered despite the fact that 35 additional residents developed symptoms. Dr. Lynn  Noseworthy said the decision, made because the virus was already confirmed on the premises, was in accordance with provincial guidelines.

Harpur said clinics in rural communities are poorly equipped to address the COVID-19 situation, adding health-care workers are scrounging masks and face shields from local businesses to try and address a pressing shortfall of protective equipment.

Testing kits, he added, are “virtually non-existent” in his practice and beyond.

“I don’t know how many, if any, tests we’ve been able to do up here because we didn’t have the swabs,” he said.

Dr. Keith Dyke, a physician practising in Southampton, Ont., said the scarcity extends even further.

“We have limited Health resources, especially ICU beds and ventilators,” he said in a public Facebook post. “Not only do we want you to stay home, but we also want you to stay in your hometown. ”

Harpur said the new arrivals pose a multi-faceted threat, since their recent sojourns in big cities and foreign countries make them more likely carriers of the coronavirus.

They also run a higher risk of infecting members of one of the most vulnerable demographics, he said, noting the year-round residents of towns like his often include a higher proportion of seniors.

Some local political leaders have also started appealing to city-dwellers and asking them to stay put as the pandemic runs its course.

“This is not summertime in Muskoka,” Bracebridge, Ont., Mayor Graydon Smith said in a video posted to his Facebook page. ”… The amount of care that can be provided in our small, community hospital is limited. We have a limited number of ICU beds, and some of those beds are full already.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford answers questions at Queen's Park in Toronto on Friday.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he, too, is aware of the problem.

“I’m getting a tremendous amount of calls from mayors and wardens in municipalities throughout cottage country,” he said. ”… They’re asking me, ‘please, ask people not to come up to cottage country until we get through this.’”

Ford did not indicate when more testing materials would be available for smaller centres, but said businesses and governments alike are working to try and procure more personal protective gear for frontline staff.

Health Canada did not comment on provincial health-care systems, but repeated advice from the Canada Border Services Agency telling snowbirds to self-isolate immediately, without specifying where they should do so.

 “House or cottage, it is important that you self-isolate ASAP,” the department said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2020.

Also on HuffPost:

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By The Wall of Law March 28, 2020 Off

Lawyers Warn Against Doug Ford’s Advice For Workers To ‘Walk Off The Job’

Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks at a news conference with Education Minister Stephen Lecce listens at Queen's Park in Toronto on March 20, 2020.

TORONTO — Employment lawyers are warning that workers can’t just “walk off the job” during the coronavirus pandemic, despite Premier Doug Ford’s insistence that they can. 

The premier said at three separate press conferences this week that construction workers — and any others who feel unsafe on the job — have the right to leave their jobs if they don’t feel safe working. 

“Let me be very clear … We passed legislation. Not just construction workers — any worker in Ontario — if you don’t feel safe in your workplace, your job will be protected,” Ford said Tuesday. “You can leave the job site.”

… you can walk off the job.Premier Doug Ford

The next day, he said it again. 

“I want to make it very, very clear … If the workplace, the construction site, is not safe, you can walk off the job.”

Ford’s government passed Bill 186 last week. The law provides job-protected leave to workers who have to stay home because they have been directed to quarantine or self-isolate by a medical or public health professional or because they have to care for a family member, including kids who are at home while schools are closed. 

Watch: Here’s who qualifies for Canada’s emergency coronavirus benefit. Story continues after video.


Lawyers tell HuffPost Canada the bill does not cover workers who are not ill, have not been directed to self-isolate and aren’t taking care of a family member. 

“It’s job-protected leave for very specific reasons,” explained Daniel Wong, a partner at Toronto law firm WeirFoulds LLP. “That’s different than a person saying, ‘I don’t feel that this is safe.’”

Ford’s government has faced heat for keeping construction sites open while workplaces deemed “non-essential” have been shut down. 

“It makes no sense that you can’t have your neighbour over for a cup of coffee yet construction sites are expected to continue operations and they can have hundreds of employees working in close proximity to each other,” said Phil Gillies, executive director of the Ontario Construction Consortium, in a statement Tuesday. 

“This is contrary to the best advice of public health officials to maintain social distancing.”

It makes no sense that you can’t have your neighbour over for a cup of coffee yet construction sites are expected to continue operations.Phil Gillies

Ontario’s new job leave includes anyone following the advice of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health to “isolate” or “quarantine,” a spokesperson for the minister of labour told HuffPost Canada. 

But right now, Ontario’s official advice is to self isolate only if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have travelled and recently returned home. 

A spokeswoman for Ford said that workers have the right to refuse unsafe work.

“If that’s the case, the worker should raise their concerns with their supervisor, employer and health and safety rep if they have one,” Ivana Yelich said by email.

Report and stay at site if conditions are unsafe

Wong said workers have the right to refuse unsafe work but it is a “different concept” than the type of leave covered in Bill 186. 

“They can initiate what’s called a work refusal. And there’s a prescribed process under the Occupational Health and Safety Act that is triggered when a person raises that concern,” he said. 

“That includes an employer conducting an initial investigation and inquiry into the worker’s concern and attempting to resolve it to the worker’s satisfaction. If the worker’s not satisfied, then the Ministry of Labour will get involved and an inspector will determine if the workers are safe or if certain things need to be changed.”

Another lawyer who specializes in workplace safety agreed. 

Employees must wait in a safe place at their workplace after reporting unsafe conditions to wait for an investigation, said John Bartholomeo, co-executive director of the Workplace Health and Safety Legal Clinic.

Workers should read Bill 186 carefully to determine if they qualify for unpaid leave, Wong suggested.

“They should clearly communicate both the reason that they’re taking the leave and that they’re taking the leave under the new amendments so that the employer understands what they’re talking about and at least knows the reasons why.”

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By The Wall of Law March 28, 2020 Off