'Lost for words:' Grief, anger, generosity after COVID-19 kills of Ontario girl, 13

·4 min read

TORONTO — A 13-year-old girl's death from COVID-19 at her home in Brampton, Ont., while her mother lay in hospital with the disease sparked an outpouring of grief, anger and community generosity on Monday.

The girl, Emily Viegas, died last Thursday after her father, an essential warehouse worker, reportedly tried to care for her in the family apartment because he worried the overburdened local hospital would transfer her to a facility far from home.

Premier Doug Ford, who has come under scathing criticism for his past refusal to implement paid sick leave for essential workers, expressed condolences for the "terrible loss of this young life." He called it a "heart-wrenching and a devastating reminder" of the what the virus can do.

"My heart breaks for this family," Ford, who is in quarantine after a staffer tested positive, said in a statement. "I can't imagine the unbearable pain and sorrow they are feeling right now."

According to the Globe and Mail newspaper, Emily had for a week been showing symptoms similar to those that had put her mother in hospital. Her vaccinated father, the family bread winner, feared the hospital would be unable to treat his daughter and opted to keep her at home — where her brother also lives — and tried to nurse her back to health.

Instead, Emily abruptly took a turn for the worse and became one of the country's youngest pandemic victims.

"It felt real when I found her in bed," Carlos Viegas told the Globe. "I put my head to her chest and I couldn't feel nothing. No heartbeat. No nothing. No breathing."

Brampton is one of the worst COVID-19 hot spots in Canada due to several workplace outbreaks. Health professionals and labour activists have long argued the province had failed to close down infected workplaces and designate their workers as a vaccination priority.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who raised the tragedy in the House of Commons, said Emily's father did not have paid sick leave.

"Thirteen-year-old Emily did not have to die," Singh said. "We need to make sure there is paid sick leave."

In response to Singh's questioning, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough gave a list of benefits the Liberal government had provided, but made no reference to Emily, leaving Singh visibly agitated.

A private member's bill that would have mandated paid sick leave failed in the Ontario legislature on Monday, with Ford's Progressive Conservatives voting it down 55 to 20. Ford said last week that his government would be bringing in a sick-leave policy that would fill "gaps" in a federal benefit.

Several area politicians took to social media to express their condolences, including Patrick Brown, mayor of Brampton, who called Emily's death "beyond heart wrenching."

"As a parent, I am lost for words," he said. "Horrifying. We can never underestimate the seriousness of COVID-19 and the variants."

Gurratan Singh, provincial NDP representative from Brampton East, said the city was in a pandemic "crisis," with people dying at an alarming rate. Brampton has lagged in terms of access to vaccines, said Singh, who accused the Ford government of abandoning the city just northwest of Toronto.

In response, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Brampton had received "significant" assistance.

"There is no suggestion that they're receiving any less than they're entitled to," Elliott told the legislature, where a minute of silence was held Monday.

A fast-rising crowdfunding initiative to raise money for the stricken family topped $80,000 late Monday afternoon, far in excess of its initial $10,000 target.

Adrian Goddard, a friend of Emily's father who organized the fundraiser, said the money would go to pay funeral and burial costs.

"Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers at this difficult and unfortunate time," Goddard wrote.

Emily's father is a well-known local ball hockey referee. The Ontario Ball Hockey Association expressed its sympathies.

"We regret to inform you that Carlos Viegas lost his daughter Emily Victoria Viegas to COVID this past week and she was only 13 years old," the association said in a tweet.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board said it was focusing on supporting staff and students hit by Emily's death.

Last week, Ontario's chief coroner Dirk Huyer said more people were dying suddenly at home from COVID-19 without having called for an ambulance. Huyer said it was too soon to explain why that might be happening.

Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer, said on Monday he worried the province could see more deaths among such young people, saying COVID-19 can "impact very quickly."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2021

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press