There were 47 new COVID-19 cases in Alberta Tuesday. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)

Spread of COVID-19 in Brampton, Ont., linked to systemic factors, experts say

‘We’re tired. We’re numb. We’re overworked. We’re frustrated, because it’s not our rules’

When Kelly Lopes learned back in the spring that the Ontario government was ordering her teenaged children to stay home from school for their own safety but expected them and their parents to continue going to work, fear and anger set in almost immediately.

In the seven months since then, however, the grocery store cashier said those emotions have given way to a numbness she said is sustaining her as she battles through the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario’s hardest-hit region.

She said that as the second wave has swelled to shocking heights in Brampton, Ont., her job has gotten harder and customers have gotten more combative.

“A lot of us are burnt out,” Lopes said Friday. “I get that we’re not paramedics or first responders, but we’re still a huge essential to a country that needs to eat. Without us being here, how do you get your food?”

Peel Region, just west of Toronto, has led the province in COVID-19 cases per capita for weeks now, with upwards of 180 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents — nearly triple the rate of the province as a whole.

Brampton makes up less than half of Peel’s population, but accounts for more than 60 per cent of its COVID-19 cases.

Lopes said the fear she feels working on the front lines is compounded by customers who push back when she reminds them to keep a distance or wear a mask.

“We’re tired. We’re numb. We’re overworked. We’re frustrated, because it’s not our rules,” she said. “We’re just trying to keep everybody else safe.”

And data from Peel suggests that workplaces like Lopes’ have some role to play in the virus’s spread.

Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, a public health expert involved in preparing the province’s COVID-19 projections, said Thursday that the virus is hardest to control in regions such as Brampton where households are larger and there’s a higher proportion of essential service workers.

“These are long-standing structural factors here,” he said. “These are not transient things related to the pandemic that drive these much higher rates of infection.”

A quarter of all households in Brampton consist of five or more people, compared to less than 10 per cent of households provincewide, according to the latest census. And just 12 per cent of Bramptonians live alone, the census data shows, compared to nearly a third of Torontonians.

Meanwhile, Peel Public Health said there have been 137 workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 in the region since the pandemic began. A full third of those were in manufacturing or warehouse settings, while 14 per cent were in retail and 11 per cent were in food processing.

Brampton has a disproportionately large number of people who work in the manufacturing industry, said Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer with the Warehouse Workers Centre.

The city is home to numerous Amazon “fulfilment centres” and other large-scale warehouses.

Kaur said she’s heard from workers that it’s hard to maintain physical distance while moving around some of those warehouses.

But she said seeking safer employment isn’t a simple matter, noting many workers are new immigrants to Canada trying to get on their feet.

“If you are a new hire in that facility, and you are a new immigrant in this country, your priority at that time is not the working conditions or what the employer is offering, because you have a family to feed or you have bills to pay,” she said.

Dr. Farah Mawani, a social and psychiatric epidemiologist, said that’s the sort of systemic racism that has put racialized people — and particularly new immigrants — at greater risk during this pandemic.

“We know that there’s a very high portion of racialized immigrants who are highly trained and skilled, but very underemployed. So they’re forced to work in manufacturing because they can’t get other jobs,” she said.”

She said the issue is even worse for temporary foreign workers, whose migration status is tied to their employment at a certain company.

If they complain about poor working conditions, Mawani said, they risk losing not only their income but their place in Canada.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said he feels his city has been unfairly maligned by those who grouse about high rates of COVID-19 without examining the root causes.

“There needs to be a bit of appreciation for the sacrifice that a lot of our essential workers are taking on,” he said.

“When you think about it, if you go to a grocery store, wherever you are in Canada, the likelihood is that someone from Brampton has helped process that food.”

He said essential workers in the city need greater support from the provincial and federal governments, while the city itself requires its own COVID-19 isolation centre.

Ottawa announced Thursday that it would open such a facility in Mississauga, Ont., another part of Peel Region.

But Brown said that’s a 40 minute bus ride away for some of Brampton’s more vulnerable residents, many of whom don’t have cars.

“An isolation center is useful when people can’t afford to rent a hotel room for 14 days, or they don’t have a place where they can safely isolate,” he said. “So I want to make sure that we have that support.”

Just Posted

New admissions have been suspended for Engineering Technology diplomas (Instrumentation, Electrical and Mechanical) and the Transitional Vocational Program at Red Deer College. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Developmentally disabled impacted: Red Deer College suspends program

Transitional Vocational Program comes to an end

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw is asking Albertans to do their part by observing gathering limits, staying home if unwell, wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Three new Central zone COVID-19 deaths, Alberta adds 1,433 cases

Red Deer down to 802 active cases of COVID-19

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman holds up freedom of information requests that turned up no records. The Opposition requested back-to-school re-entry plan correspondence between Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and school boards, teachers and the media. Photo via Facebook live
NDP renews calls for Alberta gov’t to scrap K-6 draft curriculum

The NDP is once again calling on the Alberta Government to get… Continue reading

Earlier this week Alberta Health Services warned that Rocky Mountain House Health Centre emergency department would be temporarily without physician coverage from May 12, at 6 p.m., to May 13, at 7 a.m. (Photo contributed by the Town of Rocky Mountain House)
Doctors needed in Rocky Mountain House

Emergency department temporarily closed due to doctor shortage

The owner of Mae’s Kitchen in Mirror, says hamlet residents were ‘disheartened’ by a recent anti-restriction protest. The restaurant is following all the health restrictions in place. (Photo courtesy Mae’s Kitchen Facebook)
‘We don’t need that’: Mirror restaurant against recent anti-restriction protest

A week after a large anti-restriction protest at The Whistle Stop Cafe… Continue reading

Bo’s Bar and Grill owner Brennen Wowk said the hospitality industry is looking for more clarity from the province around what conditions must be met to allow for restaurants reopening. (Advocate file photo)
Frustated restaurant owners want to know government’s reopening plan

Restaurant owners feel they are in lockdown limbo

Winnipeg Jets' Kyle Connor (81) scores on Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell (36) as TJ Brodie (78) defends during second-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Friday, May 14, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Connor scores twice, Jets beat Leafs in regular-season finale

Connor scores twice, Jets beat Leafs in regular-season finale

Atletico Ottawa defender Vashon Neufville controls the ball during Atletico Ottawa’s first team practice of their inaugural season in the Canadian Premier League in Ottawa, Wednesday June 3, 2020. The Canadian Premier League plans to kick off its third season mid-June to early July in one location without fans. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Wattie
Canadian Premier League delays kickoff again, looks to mid-June to early July start

Canadian Premier League delays kickoff again, looks to mid-June to early July start

Calgary’s Stephen Ames shoots 66 to take Mitsubishi Electric lead

Calgary’s Stephen Ames shoots 66 to take Mitsubishi Electric lead

Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros (74) deflects a shot against the Carolina Hurricanes during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, May 8, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
NHL postseason: Who’s hot as the playoffs arrive?

NHL postseason: Who’s hot as the playoffs arrive?

Ottawa Senators' Connor Brown, right, celebrates a goal with teammates during third period NHL action against the Montreal Canadiens, in Ottawa, Wednesday, March 5, 2021. Brown will lead a young Canadian squad into the world hockey championship in Riga, Latvia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Ottawa forward Connor Brown leads Canada’s roster at world championship

Ottawa forward Connor Brown leads Canada’s roster at world championship

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2018, file photo, Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Jayna Hefford shakes hands with people associated with the hall before a hockey game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New Jersey Devils in Toronto. The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association is forging ahead in its bid to establish an economically sustainable professional league in North America with or — for now — without the NHL’s full financial backing. In response to Sportsnet.ca reporting the NHL was not in a position to operate a women’s league for the foreseeable future, PWHPA executive Jayna Hefford wrote in an email to The Associated Press late Thursday that her group has begun developing what she called “a parallel path for a future that doesn’t rely on NHL support.” (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
PWHPA forging ahead without NHL backing of women’s hockey

PWHPA forging ahead without NHL backing of women’s hockey

‘No secrets’ and no certainty in one-of-a-kind NHL playoffs

‘No secrets’ and no certainty in one-of-a-kind NHL playoffs

Supporters dance during a rally against measures taken by government and health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror, Alta., on Saturday, May 8, 2021. RCMP say they have ticketed four people after the rally that was attended by hundreds.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta leadership responsible for protests against public health orders: expert

Alberta leadership responsible for protests against public health orders: expert

Most Read