There are fears migrant farmers may once again this year be a flashpoint for the spread of COVID. Photo by Michael Swan

Farms could be COVID hotspot, again

  • April 30, 2021

A year after three migrant farm workers died in Ontario and COVID-19 infections ran rampant in bunkhouses, Fr. Peter Ciallella is worried about this year’s growing season.

“I’m very concerned about a repeat of last year. We have had incidents already,” said Ciallella.

Ciallella presided at a memorial Mass for Juan Lopez Chapparo, who died from COVID-19, last June. Talking regularly to the workers on farms in Haldimand and Norfolk Counties this year, Ciallella sees signs that conditions are ripe for a repeat.

“I have yet to hear about a concerted effort of mass vaccination. There’s talk, but I have not seen a portal or site they can go on as priority, frontline workers,” he said.

Beginning April 10 the Ontario government has been offering first doses to temporary foreign workers as they arrive at Pearson International Airport. It’s unknown how many vaccines have been administered.

The government has ramped up testing.

“Essential industry sectors, including primary agricultural production, food processing and key distribution centres, have access to up to 300,000 tests in total, per week,” said Avi Yufest, communications director for Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture Ernie Hardeman.

As essential workers, temporary farm workers from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, regardless of age, are eligible for vaccines under phase two of the provincial vaccine distribution plan.

Farm workers may be eligible for vaccinations at area pharmacies or mass vaccination sites, but getting to them and knowing about them are big challenges for workers whose only access to the Internet is on their phones, who don’t speak or read English and don’t have cars.

When Ciallella hears about vaccines available, he posts the details to a WhatsApp group for foreign farm workers. When he recently posted about vaccine availability at a drug store in Cambridge, Ont., he got a message back from a worker asking whether he was close to Cambridge. The worker was in Alberta.

“It (signing workers up for vaccinations) will largely fall on the shoulders of the farmers. They’re the ones who will be able to navigate the portals,” Ciallella said.

But even the computer-literate children of farmers are finding the government websites cumbersome and confusing, Ciallella said.

In Windsor-Essex the public health unit is currently reporting three outbreaks on farms, one of which involves the B.1.1.7 variant. In an April 22 update the Haldimand-Norfolk public health unit advises that “essential workers (as defined by the province) will not be eligible until all individuals who are over the age of 60 and all individuals who are in the at-risk group have been vaccinated. Essential workers should expect to be eligible around June 1.”

The Ministry of Agriculture announced $25.5 million in matching funds for farmers to adopt new technologies that will automate various jobs and cut down on the need for more farm workers, though it won’t totally replace them, Yufest wrote in an e-mail.

“The one thing I didn’t see in the announcement was housing for the migrant farmworkers,” said Ciallella. “They are still living in limited spacing on many farms.”

If the province has $25.5 million for new farm technology, they ought to have at least as much for improved housing for farm workers, said Ciallella.

“We need to address the housing standards — not just as a preventative measure against potential spread, but the quality of life for the workers in general.”

Foreign farm workers aren’t bringing COVID-19 into Canada, said Ciallella. They are tested before they leave home and again when they arrive. They are kept in hotel isolation 10 to 14 days before they can begin work.

“The spread is local,” said Ciallella. “The initial quarantine is a preventative measure upon arrival, but what are we to do for the remaining six, seven, eight months?”

Working ecumenically with other churches in the Haldimand-Norfolk countryside, Ciallella’s team has been distributing welcome gift bags to migrant workers as they arrive. The bags contain personal protective equipment, sanitizer, hygiene items and some food. Most importantly “it gives them our contact information,” Ciallella said.

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