This GTA neighbourhood has a staggering rate of COVID-19 infections. Families are struggling, and essential workers are scared.

·7 min read

At the northeast corner of Queen Street East and Airport Road in Brampton begins a large stretch of multi-sized warehouses, factories and shops. On any given day, the movement of small and large trucks getting in, loading or unloading, and getting back out is about the only observable activity in the area, save from the occasional construction work. It’s kilometres in either direction before you reach residential parts of the neighbourhood, a mixture of multi-unit housing buildings and stand-alone or semi-detached homes.

This is the part of the GTA that has emerged as the most affected by COVID-19.

Earlier this week, the Star reported that the northeast corner of Brampton has a COVID-19 positivity rate of 19 per cent, that is to say nearly one in five people here tests positive for the virus, based on analysis conducted by non-profit ICES. Peel region as a whole has a positivity rate of 9.8, which is the highest in the GTA.

For residents of this neighbourhood, it is regrettable that some people’s behaviour may have contributed to the increase in positivity rates, but they say a big part of why coronavirus is running rampant there stems from many external factors beyond their control.

Take Robbie Singh, for example. The 28-year-old tow-truck driver, who has lived in this part of Brampton, his entire life, says, unlike many other people whose jobs give them a luxury to work from home or take paid time off, he hasn’t stopped working, even during the lockdown months at the beginning of the pandemic.

Instead, in addition to observing health measures while at work — always wearing a mask, washing hands and sanitizing — he has to regularly book a testing appointment to ensure his own safety and that of his family.

“I mean, someone has to do the job,” said Singh, as he left the testing centre at Gore Meadows Community Centre this week.

“It’s scary, because in Brampton, almost everyone is an essential worker and we get out all the time, which exposes us to the virus more than other people in other places.”

Colin Furness, an infection-control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, says the rate of spread in the region has been foreseeable since March.

“You’ve got a perfect storm in Peel,” he said.

There’s a large population of immigrants, crowded households, and poorly paid employees, engaged in precarious, yet essential work, all of which makes the region more vulnerable, he said.

In Brampton, industries, including manufacturing, retail, transportation and warehousing and hospitality, accounted for 43 per cent of residents’ jobs, based on numbers in the 2016 Statistics Canada census. These are industries which have been deemed essential and often do not offer people in them the chance to work from home.

“Ontario has been managing COVID like a political problem, rather than a public health problem,” Furness said, noting that outbreaks in places such as long-term-care homes are politically “embarrassing” and were addressed quickly and vocally by the Province.

“Migrant farm workers, homeless people … racialized communities — people don’t seem to care about (them) so much, so they just haven’t gotten resources,” Furness said. “COVID is a racist problem …. It’s layers of tragedy here.”

Before going on maternity leave earlier this year, Racine Grenaway worked in retail at the Canadian Tire. Her husband works in a food-processing factory in Toronto, and the family has decided that he stay with a cousin in town, not travel home every day and risk infecting her or any of their three children. She also has multiple sclerosis, and it’s been difficult for her to go get her medications.

Now she has another major worry: her two school-aged kids, 11 and seven, have to also get tested after an outbreak at their school forced it to shut down. There were 10 positive cases identified recently at the Holy Spirit Catholic Elementary School.

“If you ask me, the kids shouldn’t have been in school to begin with,” she said. “I mean, they pulled them out of school back in March. The situation is much worse now, right?”

She decried a lack of resources in the neighbourhood to help people in need. She said there aren’t enough walk-in clinics in the area, despite it having a growing population. Even getting a COVID-19 testing appointment can take days, she said.

“People need to watch their behaviour more, but I think our community also gets left out and ignored by government a lot,” Grenaway said.

As a pharmacist in the area, Khalid Bhatti has seen the impact of COVID-19 on essential workers in this neighbourhood first hand. The number of his own patients, who are COVID-19 positive, has been increasing steadily for the past few weeks. That rise has more to do with the nature of their jobs, than ignorance of safety measures, he said.

“They are out there every day, keeping the economic engine going,” said Bhatti, who noted the vast majority of his clients are truck drivers, people working in logistics, retail and restaurants.

For this part of Brampton to be particularly hard hit by COVID-19, there are many confounding factors at play, Bhatti said.

Many people are poverty-stricken and earn a low wage, even while they risk their lives to go to work. There are a lot of rental properties and rooming houses in the area for students and multi-generational families, and this creates a lot more density than other areas, he said.

Language barriers compound things. Many residents in the area are recent immigrants, whose first language may not be English. In addition, the messaging coming from different levels of government, keeps changing and it can get confusing for people to know exactly what to do.

Bhatti gave the example of Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, who, earlier this week, said the government might extend winter breaks for students, only to reverse this the very next day.

“The back-and-forth, every day, does not help,” said Bhatti. Governments need to be coordinated and consistent in what they tell the public.

“I, as a pharmacist, am getting confused by the messaging. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who have English as their second or third language, which predominantly this area has.”

To curb the spread of the virus, the government should be providing incentives for testing, Furness said. If tests come back positive, offer people isolation centres — plans are underway in Peel for these — and cover lost wages and groceries for their families, for the time people need to quarantine.

Furness adds that public health units should employ people who share an identity and language with the community they will be working in.

The few people who don’t respect safety measures cause a lot of pain to those trying to just survive the pandemic.

In the parking lot across from a community service centre near Williams Parkway and Airport Road, Georgina Kuaninoo, a longtime resident says it breaks her heart to hear stories of police breaking up large parties.

“Why 100 people are getting together to party in this pandemic, I don’t understand,” she said. Kuaninoo has, on several occasions, taken it upon herself to yell at people not wearing masks in public, or at those not observing a proper distance from one another.

“I haven’t seen my grandkids in a long time, and it’s tough. We only speak on the phone,” she said.

“This thing is spreading like fire and everybody is going to die if we don’t pay attention.”

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Gilbert Ngabo is a Star breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter / Gilbert Ngabo, Toronto Star, Toronto Star