Doctors at the Centretown Community Health Centre are concerned that Ottawa’s health system may not be able to withstand the incoming wave of Syrian refugees.
Refugees became a buzzword in September after the world witnessed three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s small body wash onto a Turkish beach. Later, almost immediately after being elected, Justin Trudeau set his sights on the Syrian crisis.
The Trudeau government has promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada before the New Year. Of those, up to 3,000 will be resettled in Ottawa. Three thousand new refugees would fall just shy of the entire population of downtown.
Centretown Community Health Centre is home to the Ottawa Newcomer Clinic, a program designed to help newly landed refugees.
Dr. Alison Eyre and Dr. Carol Geller are the physicians who helped found the newcomer clinic. Both say they have never seen an intake of this magnitude, and are concerned it could crack what they call an already fractured system.
“We’ll have to have a lot more man power in order to do a quick absorption,” says Geller.
Eyre says that with the influx of potentially critical cases, she fears the other refugees already in Ottawa will be lost in the numbers of Syrians who will need medical attention.
“We need to look at not just the new people coming in, but the whole system,” she says. “The government needs to be really organized about it,”
Geller continued that the biggest physical challenge will be treating the children for infectious diseases, spread by the conditions of the refugee camps. While this may sound daunting, both Eyre and Geller agree it’s not their main concern.
The mental trauma sustained by these refugees is the bigger task. “We’ve been told to expect a lot of mental health (issues)… There will be lots of grieving,” says Geller, shaking her head. She cited the experiences in refugee camps and the difficult transit journey.
“The health care needs I worry about are the mental needs and I worry particularly about them in children,” Eyre agreed.
In 2012, the government made cuts to its Interim Federal Health Program. These cuts meant many refugees were denied access to basic care such as medication and dental. Two years later, Federal Court Justice Anne Mactavish ruled that the cuts were “unusual” and “cruel”. But the Conservatives appealed her ruling.
Mado Mushimiyimana arrived in Canada as a refugee in 1996. She says that she never had to worry about how and where she would get proper health care. “Health care was for everyone, refugees included,” said Mushimiyimana. “I witnessed the good health care for all, then I witness the discrimination of who should receive medical care.”
The court proceedings concerning restoring full coverage for refugees have been pushed into December.
John McCallum, the newly appointed Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship says that fully restoring the health benefits removed in 2012 is a ”no-brainer”.
The anticipated arrival in Ottawa would almost triple the city’s normal refugee intake. Twenty-five thousand people would meet Canada’s annual numbers in just six weeks. This would equate to 500 people per day, or 50 jumbo jets filled to capacity.
“How many times do I have to say it — that is definitely our plan and we’re sticking to the plan,” a determined McCallum says in an interview with the Toronto Star.
Eyre says that health care needs to be one of the top priorities during this migration. She says that we need to act like we want these Syrians in Canada, and give them the same treatment we would a Canadian because “People are people, right?”