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If you’ve ever wondered why a Toronto suburb of 1.5 million people is one of the hardest hit spots in Canada’s COVID-19 pandemic, ask yourself this question: When was the last time you ordered something online?

In Peel Region, a gigantic sprawl in the west of the Greater Toronto Area that includes the cities of Brampton and Mississauga, there are four Amazon fulfillment centres. Indigo Books has one, too. Other major companies, such as Gap and Canadian Tire, and dozens of others that aren’t household names, distribute a wide inventory of goods from there.

A 2015 report on Peel’s wholesale and warehousing/transportation sectors estimated that together they employed 125,000 people. Peel Region may be the warehouse capital of Canada. It is also a busy manufacturing and food-processing centre. And it has been disproportionately walloped by the coronavirus.

Peel Region is one of two places in Ontario (the other is Toronto) under lockdown. As of Tuesday, it had reported 30,251 cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in March. That translated to 2,016 cases per 100,000 people – higher than Quebec, the hardest hit province, where the number of cases per 100,000 people was 1,794 on Tuesday.

In terms of active cases per 100,000 people, on Tuesday Peel had 331, compared with Toronto’s count of 193. It was also badly outpacing its suburban neighbours. On Tuesday, York Region had 113 per 100,000 people, Durham Region had 117 and Halton had 99.

The situation in Peel coincides with reports that workplaces in Ontario and Quebec have overtaken long-term care homes as the leading sources of COVID-19 outbreaks in those provinces.

Since October, Ontario workplaces have been linked to more than 1,900 infections, a number driven by factories, warehouses, distribution centres and transportation.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The jobs that keep Canada’s online and bricks-and-mortar retail industry going can’t be done from the safety of a kitchen table. They are also considered essential jobs that are exempt from lockdowns.

As well, because of the seasonal nature of the work and the low pay, these businesses employ many new Canadians. In Peel Region, people of South Asian descent make up 32 per cent of the population, but 52 per cent of COVID-19 cases. The rates for Black, Latino and Middle Eastern people are also disproportionate.

There are other places in Canada with diverse populations working in essential industries, and which have unusually high COVID-19 rates. One example is Surrey, B.C., a place provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix described in November as “ground zero” for COVID-19 in that province. Data show that Surrey has had the highest total number of cases in B.C. since the start of the pandemic.

Many residents of Surrey work in distribution centres and factories. The same goes for Park Extension in Montreal, a neighbourhood with a large immigrant population that works in the warehouses and plants close to Montreal-Trudeau Airport. Park Ex has seen a spike in cases this fall.

The problems are many. While some companies are enforcing COVID-19 prevention protocols, such as adequate physical distancing, others may not be. B.C. health officials are willing to name workplaces that have outbreaks, but Peel Region and Quebec keep that information to themselves.

As well, because of the seasonal nature of much of the work – especially in fulfillment centres – many employers don’t offer paid sick leave, making it difficult for employees to stay home if they are showing symptoms of COVID-19.

“For a city that is in a lockdown, the majority of our workers are still going to work every day because they are essential workers,” Patrick Brown, the Mayor of Brampton, said this week. “If I look at our warehouses, the transportation logistics centre, food processing, there are tools that could help us slow the spread.”

Those tools should include more rapid testing in the kind of workplaces likely to have outbreaks, more inspections of such businesses to ensure they are taking the necessary protective measures, a greater willingness to name names when outbreaks occur and government-mandated sick leave to ensure infected people can stop coming to work.

It’s clearly possible for essential work to continue, even while greatly lowering the chances of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Hospitals prove it, every day.

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