The Current

'The system failed the people of Brampton': How COVID-19 is taking a toll in hard-hit city

Brampton’s COVID-19 test positivity rate was more than double the rate for Ontario near the end of April. And residents and health experts say the government hasn’t done enough to protect people living in the Peel Region.

Brampton’s COVID-19 test positivity rate was more than double Ontario’s in late April

Gurinder Singh Khehra got COVID-19 after his wife caught it at work. He was put on a ventilator twice, and doctors say he’s lucky to be alive. (Joana Draghici/CBC)

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When Gurinder Singh Khehra woke up in an Ontario hospital after contracting COVID-19 earlier this year, he thought he was back in India.

The Brampton, Ont., resident had been unconscious and on a ventilator for nearly a week, and had no memory of Canada when he came to, he said. 

All he could see were hospital machines surrounding him. He couldn't talk, because there were tubes in his mouth and nose. 

"There is a guard sitting there, and he saw me [wake up]," Khehra told The Current's Matt Galloway. "He rush outside, he call the staff. Everyone is surrounding me and they say, 'You are very lucky.'"

Khehra is one of many people in Brampton who have been hit hard by COVID-19. 

The city of more than 700,000 in the Greater Toronto Area had a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 22.7 per cent from April 18 to 24, according to data from Peel Region Public Health, which includes Brampton. That's more than double Ontario's highest, daily test positivity rate during that same period, which reached 10.5 per cent on April 19.

Our government treated us like a third world.- Gurinder Singh Khehra

Brampton is also home to a large percentage of South Asian immigrants and essential workers who keep Canada's economy running — from manufacturing to warehouse employees, to meatpacking workers and grocery store clerks. Research published in March found neighbourhoods in Peel Region with low income levels and more essential workers were being disproportionately impacted by more contagious variants of COVID-19.

And residents like Khehra say the government is not doing enough to protect workers there from Canada's third wave of COVID-19.

"I'm very sorry to say that our government treated us like a third world," said Khehra, who was infected with COVID-19 after an outbreak at his wife's workplace, which he did not want to name.

Although he's now recovering from the virus, he said he's lost about 16 kilograms and has trouble walking short distances of even 50 metres. He was put on a ventilator not once, but twice, during his treatment. Four of his family members also tested positive for the virus, he said.

Essential workers living 'paycheque to paycheque'

Amandeep Kaur, chief operating officer at Punjabi Community Health Services in Brampton, said there are several reasons the region has been hit hard by COVID-19.

Some people are fearful they could lose their immigration status if they get treated for the virus, she said. Others are essential workers living in multigenerational homes. If one family member contracts COVID-19 on the job, she said, then the rest of the household becomes exposed to the virus too. 

"They have to go to work. They are [living] paycheque to paycheque," Kaur explained.

Amandeep Kaur is chief operating officer at Punjabi Community Health Services. She says she's lost faith in the government and its handling of the pandemic in Brampton. (Joana Draghici/CBC)

Last week, the Ontario government announced it would offer workers in the province three paid sick days until September, to help alleviate the issue. But Kaur said it's not enough.

"Is there a guarantee that you will be fine after three days if you are positive? Would you have the strength to go back to work?" she said.

"The system failed the people of Brampton by not providing what it takes to implement the public health measures."

Health care underfunded for years: Fallis

Part of why the system has failed people is because hospitals in Peel Region have been underfunded for years, and the health-care system has been slow to expand with the area's growing population, said Dr. Brooks Fallis, a critical care physician at Brampton Civic Hospital.

Even before the pandemic, things were stretched thin, he said, explaining that Brampton's ICUs typically become overloaded during flu season.

"In addition, it's a population that doesn't have a lot of financial clout, doesn't have a lot of political clout," Fallis said. "So it's easy for such a population to be ignored politically, sort of year over year." 

Dr. Brooks Fallis says the majority of COVID-19 patients he sees at Brampton Civic Hospital are people working in high-risk settings. He's calling for better workplace safety measures, in addition to more paid sick days for workers in the province. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

During a sitting of the Ontario provincial legislature last week, Brampton East MPP Gurratan Singh said "Brampton is in a crisis," and asked Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott when the city would get more support, including additional vaccines. He said Brampton had few pharmacies giving out vaccines, and only one pop-up vaccine location.

Elliott responded that Brampton had been given "significant assistance" during the pandemic, and said 25 of the 114 provincial hot spots given priority for vaccines are in Peel Region.

The health minister declined an interview with The Current. But in a statement sent on Monday, her ministry said it has increased the number of vaccination sites available to Peel residents to 150 pharmacies, 40 primary care sites, four hospitals and several mobile vaccination teams.

"For the first [two] weeks of May, we are also dedicating 50 per cent of vaccine allocations from the supply the province receives from the federal government to Peel Public Health and 12 other public health regions with historic and ongoing high rates of death, hospitalization and COVID-19 transmission," the statement said. 

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said last week in the provincial legislature that Brampton had received 'significant assistance' throughout the pandemic, adding that 25 of the 114 hot spots the province designated are in Peel Region. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Fatima Syed, a freelance reporter covering the pandemic response in Peel Region, said the idea that Brampton has been treated fairly throughout the pandemic is "completely laughable."

Although vaccine supply is ramping up in Peel Region, Syed said the rollout has been slow so far. She explained that people have to book vaccine appointments online or over the phone, which involves long wait times.

"It's been a chaotic delivery and, frankly, it hasn't reached the populations that need it the most, which is, of course, the workers," said Syed.

According to data from Peel Region, the area has seen 462 workplace outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic last March, with the majority of those occurring in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. 

"Until we get vaccine clinics set up for all of those workers, there may be more workplace outbreaks," Syed said. "And that's going to lead to more community transmission."

Calls for workplace safety measures, vaccines

While Fallis and Syed both agreed paid sick days and vaccines for essential workers are critical to quelling the spread of COVID-19 in Peel Region, they stressed that a multi-faceted approach is needed.

That should include ramping up workplace safety measures, Fallis said, such as mandatory rapid testing at high-risk workplaces, improving the quality of masks for workers, and ensuring employees have a safe place to take lunch breaks.

Fatima Syed is a freelance reporter working in Peel Region, which includes the city of Brampton. (Submitted by Fatima Syed)

On Monday, a spokesperson for Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton told The Current that the government has been working with Peel Public Health and Ontario's Ministry of Health to strengthen public health measures and slow the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.

"Leveraging their data, we have run campaigns that target hotspot regions and sectors such as big-box stores, factories and warehouses," the statement said. "In the last four weeks, our multi-ministry team of provincial offence officers conducted over 1,430 field visits in hotspots."

Syed said government leaders should also be going to warehouses and factories to speak with workers on the ground.

"We don't even know fully the extent of the devastation because we don't even know the names of the workers [who have died] and their histories and their stories because their families haven't come forward with it," Syed said.

"I really worry about what this means for Ontario moving forward, because they're hurting a huge group of people that have contributed so much to the province and the economy at the worst time. And they're hurting in ways that we don't fully understand."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Lara O'Brien, Joana Draghici, Amanda Grant, Kate Cornick and Ines Colabrese. 

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