Last week I spoke with one of Canada’s leading experts about the effects of working from home. But the coronavirus shutdown has also created a class of people who still go to their regular workplaces but may not want to be there.

Credit…Sebastien St-Jean/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There has been no obvious reluctance among health care workers, who have courageously been working all along.

At several long-term care centers in Quebec and Ontario, caregivers and residents have been dealing with major coronavirus outbreaks, a situation made worse by the failures of management that were highlighted again this week in a horrifying report by the Canadian military on five homes in Ontario.

And now, a growing number of shop workers are back on the job, after the easing of government orders that had closed most stores in Canada except in British Columbia. The latest reopenings came this week in Montreal.

Masks and plastic shields may provide some protection. But the return to work, even if it means not being among the three million Canadians who have lost their jobs during the outbreak, will most likely feel uneasy for many. It’s a source of anxiety that even the bonus pay some now receive for continuing to work may not offset.

In the meatpacking industry, staying on the job has brought not only widespread illness but also death.

In High River, Alberta, a town in the foothills of the Rockies, a meatpacking plant owned by Cargill, which is headquartered in Minnesota, has Canada’s largest single outbreak. More than 1,500 coronavirus infections and three deaths have been linked to the outbreak within the plant, most of them employees. Another meatpacking plant, in Brooks, Alberta, owned by JBS of Brazil, is linked with hundreds of cases. And about 40 federal meat inspectors who work in those plants have become infected as well, says the union that represents them.

The union representing the plants’ workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, told me that many of the employees were either recent immigrants or temporary foreign workers. (The union also noted that Cargill works with it to gain permanent immigration status for the latter.)

Neither plant is particularly automated. Employees stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the noisy plants, disassembling carcasses.

Outbreaks in the meatpacking industry have also been common in the United States. My colleagues on the Business desk, Ana Swanson, David Yaffe-Bellany and Michael Corkery, have produced a harrowing, in-depth report about a pork plant in Iowa.

Credit…Todd Korol/Reuters

The High River plant was temporarily closed for cleaning and to allow the installation of, among other things, plastic shields. New safety protocols were also introduced.

But the structure of the meatpacking industry in the 21st century creates significant economic pressure to keep plants running. Sven Anders, an agricultural economist at the University of Alberta, told me that the two plants in Alberta plus a third Cargill facility in Guelph, Ontario, processed upward of 95 percent of Canada’s beef production, much of which is exported to the United States.

Calgary Stampede, canceled this year, isn’t a nostalgic throwback, he said: The cattle industry that it celebrates is still a vital segment of Alberta’s economy.

Giant plants — the one in Brooks has more 2,600 employees — have become the foundation of the beef industry, Professor Anders said. They bring substantial cost reductions, but they also create working conditions that are ideal for spreading disease.

He said he doubted that the coronavirus would bring a return to small-scale meatpacking plants. That, Professor Anders said, might backfire on consumers.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


“It’s a bit hypocritical to come back now and criticize the massive size of this industry because don’t we all want to buy a rib-eye steak two dollars cheaper if we could?” he said.


Credit…via the House of Commons
  • For the first time since early March, I recently left my home office to go reporting rather than working by phone or through the various forms of the internet. It wasn’t much of an excursion: a quick bike ride to Parliament Hill to listen to the Dominion Carillonneur of Canada. Despite the pandemic and the closing of the Center Block for renovations, Dr. Andrea McCrady is still going up to the belfry.

  • The Spanish flu hadn’t ebbed when the 1919 Stanley Cup finals were played. And that push to return to sport, Kurt Streeter wrote, came at the cost of the death of Joe Hall of the Montreal Canadiens.

  • Kent Monkman, a Cree artist, has always been provocative. Catherine Porter spoke with some members of the Indigenous community who said that his latest work crossed the line.

  • The invasive Asian giant hornet has reappeared in British Columbia.

  • Canada’s largest newspaper, The Toronto Star, will have new owners who have pledged to uphold its tradition of championing liberal causes. The question now is how they will reverse its financial decline.

  • Dan Bilefsky and Tracy Sherlock reported on the further souring of relations between Canada and China after a Vancouver court decision left Meng Wanzhou, financial officer of the Chinese technology giant Huawei, a step closer to being extradited to the United States to face fraud charges.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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