MONTREAL — Sterly Lucien, a Haitian orderly in a Quebec nursing home, has had sleepless nights for two years, fearful that she and her young son could be deported at anytime. But the 30-year old may find reprieve from an unlikely source: the deadly coronavirus.
Ms. Lucien, who fell ill with the virus in April and infected her 2-year-old son, is one of an estimated 1,500 Haitian asylum-seekers working as orderlies in Quebec’s overstretched nursing homes.
This week, Canadian immigration officials said the federal government may allow such caregivers to essentially jump the immigration queue and remain in the country permanently because of the outsized contributions they are making to fight the pandemic.
“There are extraordinary people doing heroic work in our long-term care centers and we must look at how we can help them,” said Kevin Lemkay, spokesman for Canada’s immigration ministry.
Even the right-leaning provincial government of Quebec — which came to power two years ago pledging to cut immigration each year by 20 percent — has said it would consider the cases of individual migrant caregivers under a provincial program, although it refused to debate a broader legislative motion supporting permanent residency for caregivers.
Catherine Fournier, an independent member of the Quebec National Assembly, had introduced that motion. She said the pandemic had altered the public debate by “giving the issue of asylum-seekers a human face.”
At a time of a global uprising against the mistreatment of black people, the issue of how to treat asylum seekers working in nursing homes has also become bound up with questions of race and social inequality. Many of the workers in Quebec nursing homes, for example, are black and from Haiti, among the poorest and least developed countries in the world.
“We deserve to remain in Canada because we are putting our lives on the line every day to save others,” said Ms. Lucien, who entered Quebec from the United States without immigration papers in 2018, and hopes to pursue a nursing career.
Still, the path is not certain for Ms. Lucien. The details of the federal government plan are unclear although officials said it would likely include orderlies and possibly security guards in the health care sector.
And in Quebec, François Legault, the premier, has said that special consideration for migrant caregivers does not constitute an open door for refugees generally.
“We have to be careful,” he said. “I don’t want to send the message that in the future we will accept everybody if they find a job in Quebec.”
Like nursing homes across the world, Canadian care centers have suffered staggering mortality rates and acute staff shortages, with recent reports detailing worrisome conditions including the use of unsanitized equipment, and accusations of neglect and abuse of elderly patients.
Both Quebec and Ontario, the most populous provinces, asked the Canadian military to intervene.
The coronavirus has infected more than 97,000 Canadians and killed nearly 8,000, with more than 80 percent of the deaths in nursing homes.
Many of those working in those homes are, like Ms. Lucien, asylum-seekers or immigrants.
And like her, many of them entered Canada in recent years from the United States, bypassing the official border to benefit from a loophole in a treaty that allows migrants to make refugee claims in Canada if they did not arrive at legal ports of entry.
Upon entry, they receive a work permit, a monthly stipend of about $650 Canadian dollars and access to free health care. But they have to wait — sometimes for years — to find out whether they can stay.
This weekend, a thousand people marched in Montreal in the multicultural neighborhood where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has his office to demand that migrants risking their lives in Canada be given refuge.
One group clutched a Haitian flag. One man held a sign saying: “I died to save your parents” — an allusion to Marcelin François, a Haitian orderly who died from the coronavirus after working in several Quebec nursing homes.
Stephanie Sherly Barthelmy, 26, another Haitian asylum-seeker who contracted the virus while working as a nursing home orderly, said she was exasperated that the Quebec government recently pledged to hire and train 10,000 new orderlies for its embattled nursing homes at an annual salary of about $50,000.
That is nearly twice her current salary but only Canadian citizens or permanent residents are eligible.
Immigration advocates say the wages of asylum-seeking caregivers are typically lower than their unionized counterparts — as low as $13 an hour compared with more than $20.
“They are happy to hire us when we are cheap labor,” Ms. Barthelmy said. “I am black and the events in the U.S. are touching me, because we, too, face discrimination.”
A recent Canadian Armed Forces report on nursing homes in Ontario detailed abuses including cockroach infestations and unsanitized equipment.
In April, Montreal police began a criminal investigation after it emerged that more than thirty-one people at that time had died at Montreal’s Résidence Herron nursing home — including five from confirmed cases of coronavirus — after staff abandoned hungry and gravely ill patients.
Public sympathy for migrant caregivers gathered force two months ago after news of the death of Mr. François, the 40-year old Haitian orderly, who died from the coronavirus in his wife’s arms, leaving her with three young children.
Mr. François worked as a fork lift operator at a factory during the week and as an orderly on weekends.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 12, 2020
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.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?
Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.
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 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 do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
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 do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
Frantz André, an immigration advocate counseling Mr. François’ family, said Mr. François had reported for work even after he had a sore throat and problems breathing.
“He worked seven days a week to support his family and wanted to show that he deserved to be here,” he said.
Like many Haitian asylum-seekers, Mr. François lived with his family in Montreal North, an immigrant neighborhood that is among the poorest in Canada. More than half of coronavirus cases in Canada are in Quebec; Montreal is the pandemic’s epicenter. The rate of infection in Montreal North is more than 10 times the national rate.
On a recent day there, the sound of Creole could be heard wafting from the windows of cramped and crowded apartments. Every day, minivans run by temporary worker agencies pick up groups of Haitian migrant workers in the area, before fanning out to virus-hit nursing homes on the outskirts of the city.
Mr. André attributed the high infection rate in Montreal North to the rotation of migrants through different coronavirus wards, often with inadequate protective equipment. Also, he said, social distancing was difficult on the work minivans.
Ms. Lucien, the Haitian orderly, also lives in Montreal North with her son. She suspects she caught the virus after being given a shoddy protective mask. She recalled that in April, her son, Reuben, came down with a nose bleed and stopped eating. After both tested positive for coronavirus, they spent weeks recovering.
She said working as an orderly was grueling — she risked illness, fed patients, changed diapers, washed floors — but it gave her a sense of purpose. “These are elderly people who really need help,” she said.
Her journey to Canada took root three years ago after she and her then husband, a surgeon, left Porte-au-Prince after she said they were repeatedly targeted by armed gangs.
She has been in limbo for two years and hopes Canada lets her stay so she can become a nurse.
“I want to do something with my life,” she said.