At the corner of the Gore Centre shopping plaza in northeast Brampton, Ont., sits Gurdwara Dasmesh Darbar, a palatial ivory edifice that towers over the low-rise storefronts that surround it, many of them tailored to the South Asian community.
Sikhs trickled in and out of the gurdwara one afternoon this week to pray. Masks on and shoes off, they wrote their names on a sheet before entering. A notice in Punjabi and English asks visitors to wear masks at all times, and to physically distance from others.
In Vancouver Cloth House, a dress shop steps away from the gurdwara, owner Paramjeet Bhangal said business has been slow lately. She won’t celebrate Diwali, which begins Saturday, the way she usually does this year because of the pandemic.
“I don’t think so, too much COVID,” she said.
And she’s right. Despite precautions at the temple and elsewhere in Brampton, the Toronto suburb has become a Canadian hot spot for the pandemic, with the rising number of cases putting the city’s limited hospital resources under further strain just as the Diwali holiday begins.
While health experts fear that private house gatherings may be contributing to the surge, the health care service shortages and abundance of residents who don’t have the luxury of working from home also seem to be factors.
Diwali is widely celebrated by Hindus and Sikhs, who make up about 30 per cent of Brampton’s population, according to 2011 census data. This year would have been Brampton’s first public fireworks display for the festival of lights; instead, those who celebrate have been asked to stay at home and watch virtual fireworks.
“There’s just way too much risk right now, particularly in that region,” said Zain Chagla, an infectious-diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton. “You don’t want to have a festive event turn into a tragic event.”
Dr. Chagla said places of worship are adhering to public-health protocols. What he worries about are private gatherings before or after attending a religious event.
“You can have a gurdwara or a mosque that screens everyone, that masks everyone, that distances everyone, and does a good job of it, but if you go into a person’s home afterward it throws away all those precautions,” he said.
Brampton has consistently had some of the highest case counts per 100,000 residents and test positivity rates in the country. The city has more than 600,000 residents, but just one hospital, which is nearly at full capacity. Some patients have been sent to other hospitals to create more space.
“Our health care capacity went into this pandemic underserviced,” Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown told reporters. “We’re used to being underfunded in health care but I think this pandemic has really laid bare the health care inequities that exist in Ontario.”
Mr. Brown said the provincial average for hospital beds is 2.19 per 1,000 residents but Brampton has 0.96. “When you look at our hospital being full with COVID, I’m not surprised,” he said.
Brampton’s dire situation has caught the attention of the media in the province, and onlookers in the Greater Toronto Area. But Jaskaran Sandhu, a consultant and Brampton resident, said city residents are being unfairly maligned, victims of government underfunding and circumstances beyond their control.
“My frustration is that my community, my city, gets scapegoated over and over again for what are actually institutional failures and lack of investment, and I’m sick and tired of it,” Mr. Sandhu said.
“This is a community that is very much concerned with COVID and taking mitigation strategies very seriously. This is also a working-class town, where people have to go to work. A lot of folks here don’t have the privilege of working from home.”
A significant portion of Brampton’s work force works in factories and warehouses in the city. Mr. Brown said the city has 11,000 truckers, many of whom have been driving across the Canada-U.S. border into COVID-19 hot spots. More than 8,000 Bramptonians work in food processing.
“You wouldn’t have food on the grocery shelves if it wasn’t for these unsung Brampton residents who are taking on critical yet risky jobs during this pandemic, and in these settings we’ve seen multiple outbreaks,” Mr. Brown said.
Lawrence Loh, Peel’s Chief Medical Officer, told reporters this week that most workplaces in the region have taken proper safety precautions, but added that they are “seeing less compliance” lately.
“We are in the midst of looking at all options, legal and otherwise, that will really encourage workplaces to make sure that they are taking steps to protect their workers,” he said.
He said the absence of worker protections such as paid sick leave could lead to further outbreaks. “People will show up because they’re choosing between their livelihood and their lives,” he said.
Mr. Sandhu, the Brampton resident, suggested that many criticisms of Brampton’s COVID-19 situation are based on stereotypes and racism. The city’s population is 73.3-per-cent visible minority.
“Brampton acts as a proxy to take shots at racialized communities,” he said. “We’re not the ones that are marching in anti-mask rallies in downtown Toronto. It’s not us, but yet, it’s people in Brampton, it’s people who look like me, who are being told that we’re not taking it seriously.”
Mr. Sandhu said he hopes to see stronger public-health messaging that effectively reaches the diverse, multilingual population.
“The fact that it’s not happening now is an indictment of the regional public-health response and preparation and not an indictment of the residents who live here,” he said.
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