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Manmeen Oberoi next to a memorial of her late son, Harmandeep Oberoi, pictured on his favourite chair, at her home in Brampton, Ont., on May 26.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

This time last year, Manmeen Oberoi was reeling from two devastating losses. In April, her 89-year-old mother died of COVID-19. And then, less than three weeks later, her son, 36-year-old Harmandeep Singh Oberoi, also died of the virus.

“He had a laugh that could fill up a room,” she said. “I miss his laugh most of all.”

When Harmandeep fell ill at the end of April, 2021, he went to Brampton Civic Hospital, one of two hospitals in the city. Both were stretched to capacity with COVID-19 patients.

Inside L6P: Why The Globe asked this Brampton community to share its COVID-19 stories

He was sent home with instructions to take Tylenol. He felt worse within a few days and his family rushed him back to the hospital, where he died. Now, Ms. Oberoi can’t help but wonder if her son would have survived if he had been admitted the first time.

With five hotly contested provincial ridings, Brampton will play a key role in determining who forms government at Queen’s Park after this June’s Ontario provincial election. For many Bramptonians, health care will be the deciding factor when they cast their ballots.

Throughout the pandemic, Brampton has had some of the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rates in the province. The city has a large population of recent immigrants, many of whom work in warehouses or other settings where remote work is impossible and paid sick leave is scarce or nonexistent.

And many of them, like Ms. Oberoi, live with large families in multi-generational homes, where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is high.

Manmeen lost both her mother and her son to COVID-19.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Brampton, located in Peel Region, to Toronto’s west, has a surging population. It added more than 200,000 new residents between 2016 and 2021, making it one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Canada, with a population growth rate during that period of 10.6 per cent. It now has just over 650,000 residents. But the city’s health care services have not kept up.

Brampton has 96 hospital beds per 100,000 residents, less than half the provincial average of 220 beds. Neighbouring Mississauga has 160 beds per 100,000 residents.

Brampton Civic Hospital, run by the William Osler Health Network, is the only full-fledged hospital in the city. It has 608 beds, 18 operating rooms and specialized services for critical care, cardiology, kidney care, diabetes care and mental health and addiction services. The city’s only other hospital, Peel Memorial, has an urgent care centre but no 24-hour emergency department.

“This is literally a matter of life and death for our communities,” said Navi Aujla, an organizer with the Justice for Peel Coalition, a collection of civil society groups demanding better services for Peel Region. “People have to travel to other cities to get care they should get in Brampton ... Our voices don’t seem to matter as much as those in other cities.”

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has promised to expand Peel Memorial so that it can handle around-the-clock in-patient care. Under PC Leader Doug Ford’s plan, the City of Brampton and the William Osler Network would each have to contribute $125-million to the project – a total of 25 per cent of the expansion’s expected cost.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said at a news conference this month that Mr. Ford’s plan doesn’t go far enough to address Brampton’s needs. Under her plan, the local contribution would only be 10 per cent. The NDP has also promised to build a third hospital in Brampton, as well as a cancer care centre.

“I’m from Hamilton. My community is actually a little bit smaller in population than Brampton. We have three hospitals and we have a children’s hospital,” Ms. Horwath told reporters.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has also promised to expand Peel Memorial and build a third hospital in Brampton. “I have been talking about this for years and understand that the people of this important and growing region desperately need improved access to health care,” he said in November.

Brampton’s health care system, already overwhelmed, was pushed to its limit during the pandemic’s most dire periods. Many residents, like Ms. Oberoi’s son, could not find hospital beds when they needed them.

William Osler said in a statement that it is doing what it can to serve the community, despite the fact that its emergency departments are some of the busiest in Canada.

“Throughout the pandemic, the communities we serve have been among the hardest hit, and Osler continues to focus efforts on recovering our services,” the statement said.

Ms. Aujla argued that health care in Brampton is severely underfunded because of an intersection of racial and class politics. “It’s not a coincidence that we are a racialized city and we are also underfunded,” she said.

On May 1, International Labour Day, workers in Brampton held a demonstration for better working conditions. One of their main demands was better health care.

Workplace outbreaks made an outsized contribution to Brampton’s high COVID-19 infection rates. During the Delta-variant wave last year, Peel Public Health ordered three Amazon facilities in Brampton to shut down as the virus spread among workers. At one Brampton Amazon warehouse, 600 employees had caught COVID-19 by March, 2021. Other worksites across Peel were also shut down because of outbreaks.

Peel Public Health said in January that it would stop investigating workplace outbreaks because it had to “refocus resources” amid the uncontrolled spread of the Omicron variant. At the time, Brampton had the second-highest COVID-19 case count in the province after Toronto, a city with more than four times its population.

Vaccinations have been another struggle. When booster shots were rolled out across the province, Peel’s Medical Officer of Health, Lawrence Loh, appealed to younger residents to hold off on getting their third vaccine doses so high-risk residents could get them first. Opponents of Mr. Ford said at the time that the provincial government hadn’t given Peel Public Health the resources it needed to mount a comprehensive immunization campaign.

Ms. Oberoi, for her part, believes much of Brampton’s pain could have been avoided if the city had more health care facilities. She said she will fight for a third hospital, because that’s what her son would have wanted.

“My son had been paying taxes in this country for 15 years,” she said. “At the very least, he deserved a hospital bed.”

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