MSF responds to COVID-19 in Canada


TORONTO, April 13, 2020 – Inner City Health Associates (ICHA), Canada’s largest healthcare organization specializing in the care of people experiencing homelessness, welcomes Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada to support their COVID-19 pandemic response at Toronto’s first COVID-19 recovery site for people experiencing homelessness.    

MSF brings to ICHA’s comprehensive, provincially funded plan its extensive global experience leading responses to major infectious disease outbreaks, as well as a steadfast commitment to humanitarian principles. ICHA is the clinical services lead for caring for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak. With MSF’s medical technical and logistical advice, ICHA will run the COVID Recovery site for people experiencing homelessness in Toronto.

The 400-bed COVID-19 Recovery Site, slated to open soon, is the product of strong collaboration across public health, community healthcare, social support, hospital and city agencies dedicated to caring for and treating people experiencing homelessness who have contracted COVID-19. It is a critical part of ICHA’s comprehensive plan to ensure Toronto’s homeless population receives the care it needs during the COVID-19 pandemic; ICHA has already launched its risk stratification work and is providing services at the COVID Protection site.   

COVID-19 represents an unprecedented threat for people experiencing homelessness. Health and living conditions among the 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto makes them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, a virus likely to have a disproportionate and devastating impact on them. 

ICHA Medical Director Dr. Andrew Bond thanked MSF for contributing its global expertise to the needs of Toronto’s homeless residents. ICHA’s relationship with MSF reflects a shared commitment to save lives, alleviate suffering, and help provide dignified shelter and medical care to persons experiencing homelessness.  

“This aligned action reflects the severity of COVID-19, its profound impact on homelessness in Toronto, and the urgent need to mount a massive response beyond ICHA’s current capacity,” said Dr. Bond, adding the inadequacy of services to prevent and respond to COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness makes this initiative necessary. For ICHA, homelessness has always been both a health and a humanitarian concern.  In that context, it is an honour to work with MSF,” said Dr. Bond. 

This is MSF’s first operation in Canada. Countries with well-functioning healthcare systems are generally not its focus, but MSF’s Executive Director Joseph Belliveau said the magnitude of the COVID-19 outbreak and its particular impact on vulnerable groups, such as people experiencing homelessness,  creates an acute need that MSF’s unique expertise can help meet. 

“With our extensive experience responding to outbreaks, such as Ebola, cholera and diphtheria in conflict-affected low-resource areas, we see an opportunity to share our knowledge with first-responders here in Canada to prepare and assist a community that is highly exposed to the virus,” he said.  

ICHA’s response plan includes identification and risk stratification strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and respectful care and treatment for COVID 19-affected people experiencing homelessness.  It incorporates preventive and clinical nursing, medical care, case management and substance use services. These services are to be complemented by a strong community health, social service and harm reduction response from community partners. MSF will advise on infection prevention and control, patient flow, staff safety and other technical logistical aspects of setting up and running the COVID-19 Recovery site.   

“We thank Minister Elliott for funding our COVID-19 response plan to protect and care for people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, who make up more than half of Ontario’s homeless population,” said Bond. 

ICHA is a group of over 100 physicians and 50 nurses who provide transitional primary care, psychiatry, nursing, and palliative care services to people living on the street, in shelters and in precarious housing across Toronto. Its mission is a healthy end to homelessness.  

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was founded in 1971 and provides emergency medical humanitarian assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or who do not have access to medical care. MSF is an independent, self-governed, non-profit organization and currently has medical programmes in more than 70 countries worldwide.