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Asylum seeker 'wrestling virus to the ground' at Northwood nursing home

An asylum seeker, who wishes to remain anonymous, is working at the Northwood long-term care facility, the Nova Scotia epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, while she waits for her immigration claim to be processed by the federal government.
An asylum seeker, who wishes to remain anonymous, is working at the Northwood long-term care facility, the Nova Scotia epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, while she waits for her immigration claim to be processed by the federal government. - Eric Wynne

HALIFAX, N.S. - Five to seven days each week, Claire mentally prepares herself for another 12-hour shift at Northwood.

“Sometimes I’ll feel weak, I mean we are human and sometimes there is fear, so I’ll be like, ‘Claire, go, you’ll make it. These people need you. You can’t give up. Just go, you’ll make it,’” the asylum seeker with no status in Canada, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Chronicle Herald.

The Halifax long-term care facility has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Saturday, Northwood has 157 residents and 31 staff members with active cases. To date, Northwood has accounted for 41 of the 47 COVID-19 deaths in Nova Scotia.

But Claire continues to work as a caregiver at Northwood, putting in longer hours than she did before the pandemic and positioning herself front and centre of the public health crisis.

“I think I like it because I’m a person of people," she said. "When I render services to someone and it brings happiness to somebody, it pleases me. I’m not just doing the work because I have to be paid, but I’m doing it because it’s what I like doing.”
 
One night in early April, while working at Northwood, she was doing her hourly patrol to check in on the residents. One of them, a man who she said must have been in his 90s, was having breathing problems. Hours before, he seemed fine and Claire, who was wearing a protective mask, gloves, scrubs and shoes at the time, had changed his diaper.

After seeing him in that deteriorated state, Claire called a nurse to check on the resident.

“Unfortunately, that guy passed on," she said. "He passed on when I was about to leave, when my shift was over.

“That made me feel so bad and like maybe I’ve got (the virus). But thank God, I didn’t get it.”

That experience filled her with a sense of worry, she said, and her blood pressure spiked up, leading her to seek medical advice from a doctor, who prescribed her medication and started monitoring her.

She also watched as another Northwood resident she regularly provided care to fell victim to the virus.

“I could see that this woman was gone," she said. "Sometimes I would cry. I would say, ‘Oh God, help this woman.'

“That woman liked me so much and I also liked her. I was very patient with her. So one of the workers came to me at break and told me that my friend passed.”

I’ve been through situations that are worse than this, people haunting you, being at gunpoint seven times, so with COVID-19, what is the difference?”

- Claire, Northwood caregiver

Still, with the looming presence of COVID-19 at Northwood, Claire carries on.

Having lost her 10-year-old daughter back home in Cameroon, lived through the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa, fled Cameroon for South Africa, where she was a pastor at a church, received death threats and was attacked on multiple occasions, she said COVID-19 is not a major concern for her.

In fact, Claire said battling the virus is a small price to pay to live in Nova Scotia, where she came after illegally crossing the border at Roxham Road in Quebec from the United States, where she was attending a conference, in search of peace and refuge in June 2019.

“That’s why when I get into Northwood now, I don’t regret a single minute," she said in tears. "Even if I get COVID-19, even if I could be infected by it, I don’t mind because I’ve been through situations that are worse than this, people haunting you, being at gunpoint seven times, so with COVID-19, what is the difference?”

Before the pandemic took hold, Halifax immigration lawyer Lee Cohen helped Claire finish her refugee application and submit it to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, along with a work permit application to allow her to work while her claim is being processed.

Cohen said she is now waiting for her refugee claim to be heard, as are most claimants in Canada, after "the dust settles on the virus.”   

“While she waits for that to happen, without knowing what the outcome is going to be, without knowing whether Canada is or is not going to grant her refugee status and the protection that she’s pursuing, she’s on the frontlines of this fight, wrestling the COVID-19 virus to the ground,” he said.

Refugee claimants on frontline

Cohen said Claire’s “unselfishness” to help Canadians and seniors win the battle against the virus, without knowing whether Canada will accept her refugee claim, is a “common characteristic” he has seen in asylum seekers he has worked with over the past three and a half decades.

He added there are "dozens upon dozens" of other refugee claimants and newcomers in Nova Scotia who are "on the frontline of the fight against this virus."

While Claire has limited health-care coverage under the interim federal health program as a refugee claimant, Cohen said she "doesn't have the luxury or the benefit" of full health-care coverage as she is not entitled to MSI coverage in Nova Scotia.

This, Claire said, is her “biggest fear” because she is putting her health and safety at risk but remains uninsured, adding she hopes the government extends health-care coverage to refugee claimants working in essential services who are putting their lives on the line during the pandemic.

“It’s important to see what they could do with people that are working in health services and don’t have coverage, like a health card, because there are really a lot of us that don’t have health cards and we are rendering our services to other fellow Canadians,” she said.

In the meantime, as Nova Scotia continues to see cases of COVID-19 popping up, Claire said she will work at Northwood until the pandemic is over and that she's confident she will not contract the virus.

“I think I came into Canada in a time that I was needed," she said. "I’m happy that I render these services to Canadians. I’m very happy that I came in a time that I could (make) an impact. I’m very happy. Even if I don’t (get) to be in Canada again, I thank God for working during this period.”

Noushin Ziafati is a local journalism initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government.

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