At Alberta meat plant, COVID-19 put Catholic social teaching into action

The Cargill meat-packing plant is pictured in early May in High River, Alberta. More than 1,500 cases, resulting in three deaths, were linked to the plant in mid-April. (CNS photo/Todd Korol, Reuters)

By Andrew Ehrkamp, Catholic News Service

EDMONTON, Alberta — The largest single outbreak of COVID-19 in North America may be one of the biggest lessons in the Catholic social principles of sacrifice, the value of work, care for the common good, and solidarity.

More than 1,500 cases, resulting in three deaths, were linked to the Cargill meat-packing plant at High River in mid-April. Most of the employees were newcomers to Canada: either permanent residents or temporary foreign workers. The crisis situation created strong feelings of being scared, hungry, vulnerable and needing some reassurance.

“Someone who is sacrificing of their life for another, I look at the workers in a realm that is very close to that,” said Ric Morales, executive director of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, which mobilized teams to help the Cargill workers and their families.

“Here are people going out into a situation that some of them knew could be very risky. You have people who are going out knowing that they have to provide not only for their families in Canada, but there are people from their country of origin that are relying on them.”

For 11 days, roughly 60 Calgary Catholic Immigration Society staff, along with volunteers and staff from the Alberta International Medical Graduates Association and Action Dignity, worked remotely with Cargill employees and their families in High River, putting in extended shifts.

Morales said in a matter of days, cases skyrocketed from the mid-30s to more than 300. Staff, volunteers and other settlement organizations mobilized to provide support, from accessing government help, to culturally appropriate food, to the simple reassurance that they would get through the outbreak together.

Immigration society workers were also helping employees and families at the JBS meat-packing plant in Brooks, which initiated a citywide emergency response to a COVID-19 outbreak in that city.

Six months later, immigration society workers are still providing support. For Morales, it’s an example of Catholic social teaching in action.

“Our sole goal was to intervene as quickly as possible, so you wouldn’t have the possibility of fatalities or community spread,” Morales said. “You can well imagine the sort of uncertainty that was existing at this time for all those clients. … This was deemed the single largest national outbreak in Canada.”

“What happened in High River was a perfect example to see the impact on newcomers.”

Canada as a whole has been weathering the storm of COVID-19. According to immigrant society workers on-site in High River and Brooks, that pales when compared to what the foreign workers were experiencing. They worried about food, their jobs, their families and their own lives.

Some of the workers lived in multifamily homes, and many of them shared commuting to work as a group.

Prior to the suspension of work at the plant, “There were some allegations that some workers felt they had to go to work because the plant was offering them $500 bonuses,” Morales said.

“A lot of clients were saying they didn’t want to, but some felt given the wages that they were making, $500 would go a long way. Despite the threat of COVID, some took the risk. For some, one can imagine what the extra income could mean.”

Morales said many had to make “the choice to stay home for their own personal safety or to go to work.”

The Cargill plant eventually suspended operations, encouraged employees to get tested for COVID-19, and complied with directives from Alberta Health Services prior to reopening.

During that time, some workers were reluctant to access mainstream social services like a food bank or were unaware how to do it. Others did not understand the gravity of the situation and were at times relying on myths as to how to combat the virus.

“COVID is just another layer in coping in a different cultural context,” Morales said.

“Some people have a lot of myths about it. We’ll take some ginger. We’ll take some garlic. We’ll take some lime. We’ll have these cures. Some people tend to minimize what was happening. Some people didn’t understand because of the language barriers.

“At the end of it all, our staff were trying to reassure people that everything is going to be well,” Morales said. “We had to assist people who were dealing with isolation. So there was a great deal of chaos all the while trying to bring some sort of reassurance during that time.”

In High River, Morales said some workers were refused entry into grocery stores or banks, based on their ethnicity and their employment at Cargill. Conversely, there were also benevolent acts of kindness, as some people offered support and donations were given to the food bank.

“Community members reached out to our office and said ‘What can I do to help?'” Morales said, noting local school divisions donated money to food banks to help, as did Cargill itself. “That’s one of the teachings that came forward that I saw being demonstrated: empathy, this love for their fellow man.”

Morales said the outbreaks in High River and Brooks highlighted the vulnerability of Canada’s food supply in a province famous for touting its beef, and it showed the disparity in society.

He said the pandemic proved that (foreign workers) do not have the same level of access to services even though they are critical to keeping Canada fed.

“When you consider the fact that many people went through a whole lot to get to Canada — and then to deal with this — we saw the faith, the resilience of the human being not only in the faces of one of the greatest terrors of their own lives, but they came out and came back with a great deal of humility.

“I think it’s a big learning lesson for us all,” Morales said. “They were essential workers. They were workers who were providing an essential, stable food product to feed the entire country.”

 

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