Norfolk County CAO Jason Burgess issued the following statement today, in light of recent social media posts regarding the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit and migrant workers. 

“I’ve become aware of a number of social media posts containing significant misinformation about the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit’s role in facilitating the self-isolation of incoming migrant workers.

Specifically, these posts wrongly accuse Health Unit staff and Medical Officer of Health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai of racism and of violating migrant workers’ civil liberties.

The posts also compare the Health Unit to the Nazi regime.

The posts falsely suggest that the Health Unit has made “ID cards” mandatory for incoming migrant workers this season.

In fact, the Health Unit provided farmers with blank information cards meant to help the farmers and the workers themselves keep critical information handy, especially since some of them might be quarantined away from the farm during their mandatory self-isolation period. 

This is necessary because farmers don’t always know the names of the specific workers coming to their farm for the season until they arrive, and many of these workers are not fluent in English.  The use of these cards (similar to those issued at many workplaces) is not mandatory. They are filled out by the worker, and list the worker’s name and arrival date, as well as the name, address and phone number of the farmer who is responsible for them under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. They do not include a photo or any other information.

I suspect these social media posts are the result of some farmers being displeased with the Health Unit’s decision to allow no more than three migrant workers to self-isolate in any one living quarters, regardless of its size.    Some of these living quarters – also known as bunkhouses –are designed for 20 or 30 workers, all of whom would be expected to share kitchen and washroom facilities, dramatically increasing the risk of virus transmission.  The decision has upset a small number of farmers who would prefer to have much larger groups of workers isolating together, citing the cost of finding suitable isolation facilities.

Like all orders from the Medical Officer of Health, this decision was made based on sound scientific and medical evidence, and is designed to lower the risk of on-farm outbreaks (like the one experienced in the Chatham area), protect the food supply, and protect the local hospital system from being overwhelmed with new cases spread between large numbers of workers self-isolating together.

More importantly, our Medical Officer of Health created an order that put the health and safety of migrant farm workers at the forefront, going out on a limb to better protect these workers. So to accuse him of racism is beyond the pale. Of all of the complaints I received about the order to limit the number of people being quarantined, none of them related to the health and safety of the migrant workers – they all related to the cost of the program.

While the vast majority of farmers understand the importance of protecting public health, a small number of individuals are appealing this public health order – a right that everyone has – and we look forward to settling the matter for good.

I understand the frustration with our current situation, and the significant sacrifices being asked of all of us in order to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. But accusing Health Unit staff of racism and comparing them to Nazis is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

Dr. Nesathurai and Health Unit staff have done a tremendous job helping residents in Haldimand and Norfolk manage the pandemic, and deserve thanks – not attacks made from behind the screen of a computer – for working around the clock to keep us all safe and healthy.”