Toronto's high-risk communities need much more support, COVID-19 outreach workers say

After spending nine months and counting doing health outreach work in his home community of Thorncliffe Park, Aamir Sekhera fears that slowing the spread of COVID-19 has become a nearly impossible task.

Low testing, high positivity rates a consistent issue in hardest-hit communities

Aamir Sukhera, standing in the food bank set up by The Neighbourhood Group at the start of the pandemic. (Aamir Sukhera/Submitted)

After spending nine months and counting doing health outreach work in his home community of Thorncliffe Park, Aamir Sukhera fears that slowing the spread of COVID-19 has become a nearly impossible task.

"It's a 1.5-kilometre radius of just giant towers with thousands of people," said Sekhra, who is with the local non-profit The Neighbourhood Organization.

"So we did anticipate having a lot of cases, we just didn't think it would be this high."

Like many of Toronto's high-density, low-income neighbourhoods, COVID-19 rates in Thorncliffe Park have outpaced other areas of the city for much of the pandemic.

According to data from Toronto Public Health, the area is logging 649 cases per 100,000 residents, nearly three times higher than neighbouring Leaside.

Those figures are the result of a combination of deep-rooted systemic issues and a lack of support for low-income residents, according to several community health organizations across Toronto. Tackling those challenges is becoming an increasingly urgent task, they say, as the city enters another lockdown and looks to fend off the second wave of the pandemic.

The high-rise apartment buildings that dominate Thorncliffe Park can make it difficult for residents to avoid contact with others, local health workers say. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

"We don't want to be a burden for the rest of our city," Sukhera said. "But the circumstances here prevent people from doing the right thing for the greater community."

He said dense high-rises, multi-generational homes and a workforce dominated by front-line essential workers have made it difficult to slow the novel coronavirus.

"This is the time to just get resources into the hands of those that need it the most," added Cheryl Prescod, executive director of the Black Creek Community Health Centre, where local COVID-19 cases have reached 773 per 100,000 residents.

Toronto to roll out 'enhanced' supports

The City of Toronto on Monday announced what it calls enhanced COVID-19 supports for communities in the city's northwest and northeast corners.

Those enhancements include initiatives around testing, including the introduction of some mobile testing and transportation to other testing sites, as well as an education and outreach program that will lean on local agencies.

"We owe it to the most vulnerable to make sure that extra measures are provided, extra supports are provided in their fight against COVID-19," Mayor John Tory said.

The province has also noted the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities like Thorncliffe Park and Black Creek. In a COVID-19 modelling update Thursday afternoon, provincial public health officials said "long-standing structural factors" have been shown to increase risk for the disease.

But despite those acknowledgements of inequity and expressions of support, community outreach workers say the authorities aren't doing enough to help residents living in the city's pandemic hot spots.

Cheryl Prescod, of the Black Creek Community Health Centre, says cases 'will not go down unless we intervene quickly.' (Zoom)

Sukhera said programs to assist COVID-19 patients with rent payments and food are a must. Without them, he said people cannot be reasonably expected to strictly follow public health recommendations, since being tested or self-isolating could mean losing a paycheque.

"There's the right thing to do, and everyone sort of knows what that is," Sukhera said. "But in their defence, they've still got to pay rent and not get their families kicked out of their homes."

Despite those obstacles, Prescod of the Black Creek Community Health Centre said her organization will continue its outreach work throughout the winter. 

She said she's hopeful that gains can be made, but not without more help for communities like hers.

"Without proper resources and sufficient funds to address some of our broken systems, we cannot hold on to that hope for very long."