When Kelly Lopes learned back in the spring that the Ontario government was ordering her teenage 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.
However, in seven months since then, the cashier of the grocery store said the emotions had given the way to numbness which he said was to support it when he fought through the Covid-19 pandemic in the hit area of Ontario.
He said that as the second wave had swelled to a surprising height in Brampton, ONT., The work is getting harder and customers become greater.
“Many of us are burning,” Lopes said Friday. “I understand that we are not the paramedics or respondents first, but we are still very important for the country that needs to be eaten. Without we are here, how do you get your food?”
The peeled area, west of Toronto, has led the province in the case of Covid-19 per capita for weeks now, with more than 180 new weekly cases per 100,000 population – almost three times the provincial level as a whole.
Brampton formed less than half of the skin population but contributed more than 60 percent of Covid-19 cases.
Lopes said the fear he felt working on the front line was exacerbated by customers who pushed back when he reminded them to keep a distance or wore a mask.
“We are tired. We die. We work too much. We are frustrated because it’s not our rule,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep everyone safe.”
And data from Peel shows that workplaces such as Lopes have several roles to be played in the spread of the virus.
Adalsteinn Brown, a public health expert who was involved in preparing Covid-19 provincial projections, said on Thursday that the virus was the most difficult to control in areas such as Brampton where households were bigger and there was a higher proportion of important service workers.
“This is a long structural factor here,” he said. “This is not temporary things related to pandemics that drive a much higher infection rate.”
A quarter of all households in Brampton consist of five or more people, compared to less than 10 percent of households in the province, according to the latest census. And only 12 percent of Brampton people live alone, census data shows, compared to almost a third of Torontonia.
Meanwhile, PEEL Public Health said there were 137 players at the Covid-19 workplace in the region since the pandemic began. Third of them are in manufacturing or warehouse arrangements, while 14 percent in retail and 11 percent are 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 “fulfillment centers” 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 center.
Ottawa announced Thursday that it would open such a facility in Mississauga, Ont., another part of the 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.”
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