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Former finance minister Rod Phillips arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Dec 31, 2020.Handout

There is, it appears, an alternate reality where vacations to Mexico, or Barbados, or Hawaii, or St. Barts, or Switzerland, or Arizona or Las Vegas – or trips to California to sell or maintain second homes, or to Ireland to help a child start school – are unremarkable activities in the brains of politicians during a global pandemic. And I would like a ticket to this place – one where an elected official can apparently understand that thousands of Canadians have died, hundreds of thousands have been sickened, millions of jobs have been lost and innumerable people are suffering in myriad ways, and still decide that the only necessary change to his or her vacation plans should be to pack along an extra bottle of hand sanitizer or two.

As far as I can tell, this alternate reality can only be accessed in a few specific ways. One, by sticking a crayon in your ear as far as it will go, until you hit brain matter. Two, by sucking down enough Jose Cuervo that the phrase “essential travel” loses all meaning and starts to look like “eggplant taquitos.” Or three, by being removed from the suffering of vulnerable communities, veiled by your own good fortune and privilege that you think COVID-19 somehow doesn’t affect you, and certain that government rules and recommendations are in place for everyone else.

Canada’s gaggle of jet-setting politicians represent perhaps the most extreme example of a phenomenon observed by Michael Warner, the medical director of critical care at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital, who told my colleagues Andrea Woo and Tu Thanh Ha about the changing demographics of COVID-19 patients he is now seeing. According to Dr. Warner, patients in the first wave tended to be essential workers, often from racialized communities, who generally did not have the ability to self-isolate. But things have changed.

“What we have now is people with privilege who think that they are somehow different, and rationalize to themselves that it’s okay that they get together over the holidays with one, two, four, five people because they deserve it,” Dr. Warner said. “What has happened is now those people are getting COVID-19.”

Plenty of data over the past few months have illustrated how certain populations have disproportionately borne the brunt of illness to this point. According to information collected by Toronto Public Health, for example, 48 per cent of people with reported cases of COVID-19 for whom income data was available lived in low-income households as of Oct. 31, though they make up just 30 per cent of the population. The rate of COVID-19 was higher in households of five or more people than in smaller households, which may be reflective of multigenerational households where members are front-line or essential workers. And the positivity rate in lower-income neighbourhoods has been several times higher than the city average. Similar trends have been observed in northeast Calgary, where many residents live in multigenerational households and cannot work from home, and in pockets of Montreal.

The irony is that before COVID-19 became a disproportionate problem for factory workers, personal support staff, migrant farm workers and other essential personnel, it was an illness carried across the world by those with the means to visit far-away destinations. A ski resort in Austria, for instance, is believed to be one of the major early sources of spread across Europe, after vacationers carried the virus from chalets and restaurants back to their hometowns. Canada imported COVID-19 from travellers from the United States, China, Europe and elsewhere. It wasn’t until the virus started spreading in the community that COVID-19 found the most vulnerable pockets of society, and settled there.

That’s why those who have had the luxury of working from home in relatively “safe” neighbourhoods may have been able to delude themselves into thinking COVID-19 was just a problem for low-income or essential workers. Or why, for example, Toronto parents in high-income households were more than twice as likely to opt for in-person learning for their kids compared with parents in low-income households. And it’s why those with crayons in their ears might have thought that putting aside their legislative duties and jetting off for a vacation was a good idea. They didn’t think COVID-19 would affect them. That delusion will soon give way to reality.

A recent Leger poll indicated that nearly half of respondents gathered with friends or family over the holidays. Increasing case numbers and hospital capacity issues have forced Quebec to plan for a full lockdown, and other provinces are likely just a few weeks behind. That’s because in this reality, uncontrolled, exponential spread doesn’t stay confined to any one community. Hope the luau was fun while it lasted.

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