[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Would you like to know what it sounds like when a COVID hotspot gets the help it desperately needs? It kind of sounds like a party.
News Clip: A vaccination marathon going for 32 hours straight in Peel.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Peel Region has been among the communities hardest hit in all of Canada by COVID-19. And even as cases surged everywhere in Ontario, it outpaced the rest of the province. So why was Peel so hammered by the virus? How could it have been avoided? Why did it take so long for that help to arrive? Why don’t most Canadians, and I don’t mean Ontarians here, I mean, all Canadians from coast to coast, realize how critical Peel is? All that stuff you’ve been ordering from Amazon, all the things you’ve been getting delivered from Canada Post. Metric tons of it [00:01:00] travels through Peel every day, handled by workers who come to work in warehouses, manufacturing, and sorting facilities.
So if so much of what Canada needs passes through Peel, why did nobody, including some of the biggest media publications in the country, care about it enough to cover it until a month ago?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Fatima Syed is a reporter, a Peel Region resident, one of our favourite guests, and she is now a podcaster. Her new show is called The Back Bench. Hey Fatima.
Fatima Syed: Hi Jordan, nice to be back.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It is always nice to have you back. And first, I just want you to set the scene for us. Um, on the weekend I saw your Twitter page. You were at the Doses After Dark, uh, clinic. Tell me about that.
Fatima Syed: So, uh, [00:02:00] Peel Region, which for those listeners who don’t know where that is in Ontario, it’s literally like 20 minute drive from Toronto. And it’s this huge area that encompasses three different cities, um, Mississauga, Brampton, and the town of Caledon.
And this past weekend, they hosted their first, well, not even- their first, but also Canada’s first overnight clinic. So this was a 32 hour operation with the goal of vaccinating 7,000 people. And it was so much fun! I know that’s weird to say about a vaccination clinic, but everyone just turned out it. You know, someone described it as a vaccine rave to me, uh, while I was just like talking to people and I thought that was such an apt description.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What kinds of stuff did you see?
Fatima Syed: There was music playing, everyone like the line of people was insane. The parking lot was just full. So they hosted it at the International Center, which is this, [00:03:00] um, event space. Uh, you know, the last time I was there was for the Halal Food Festival. If you can imagine there’s festivals and very, very large gatherings at this building. It’s minutes away from the airport, which is super dead right now. Um, and then suddenly you go into this parking lot and it’s full, just cars everywhere. I couldn’t find a parking, um, for like minutes, which was a new feeling in the pandemic.
And then just like a line of people literally just snaking around the entire building, and then you go inside the vaccination clinic and it’s just, it’s just fun. Everyone’s just chatting and vibing and smiling. And as you leave, you’re given like goodies, like there was free, Tim Horton’s, uh, Rocky Mountain Chocolate, um, uh, goodie bags from the Peel uh, Art Gallery and Museum. Um, and there were even t-shirts. I was really sad that I couldn’t get a t-shirt. There was a t-shirt that said, “This is our shot”, and I really wanted it, but it was only for people who were getting vaccinated.
[00:04:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Aw.
Fatima Syed: Um, but it was, it was legitimately like the perfect pandemic party.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And I was watching, uh, clips from it and seeing your photos and it’s like, this is what like beating COVID looks like right? When you have this virus on the ropes and you are just pumping shots into arms and especially in one of the hotspots.
Fatima Syed: Yeah. I mean, Peel Region has been really hard hit during this pandemic, right? It’s still one of the country’s most concerning hotspots. And it has been a hotspot, uh, forever, since, since the pandemic started, because there’s such a huge essential workforce here. And there’s a lot of, uh, multi-generational houses here. So, you know, the spread of the virus has just been very fast and very deadly in this entire region because it’s made up of immigrant communities and low income household and, and so forth.
So, um, Peel Region has been trying innovative, uh, ideas like this overnight clinic to try and [00:05:00] get workers who, who, you know, have shift jobs. They work during the day, or they work at odd hours in the night. Um, also young people who are studying or, you know, haven’t had a chance to get vaccinated, and just like families who are still hesitant to, to get the vaccine, out and, and get needles into their arms. So this was part of that innovative thinking, um, and as cool as it was, and as much fun as I had just hanging out from like 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yes.
Fatima Syed: As fun as it was, there were still things that concerned me, right? So there were a lot of workers in line that I spoke to, um, and a lot of young people, and they had appointments. So this clinic allowed for appointments and walk-ins because, you know, they had so many doses available. So anyone, it was like a free for all. Um, but those with appointments were waiting for an hour sometimes to just get inside. And there was a little frustration. Um, you know, there were [00:06:00] people who were standing in line who just, you know, were tired and decided to leave and, and, and not go about it. And, um, there were others who came at like midnight thinking that it would be completely empty, that no one would be out at this late hour to a vaccine clinic, and then, arrived and saw the parking lot full and the line really, really long. And, and we’re kind of dissuaded by, by waiting around for however long it needed.
And then there were other shift workers, you know, I met this one, couple, they were common law partners. Um, the husband worked at a heating and cooling, uh, systems manufacturer, uh, and, and his partner, uh, she worked in a logistics company. Um, she helped package Aritzia clothes. And they both said that they tried to get an appointment on a whim because it happened to be their day off and they got an appointment and the woman had to go to work the next day. Um, but yeah, decided to just stand out at midnight and wait [00:07:00] until her turn comes with her partner and her two young kids, her two boys, age 9 and 10, because no one else could take care of them were, were with them. So I don’t know how long they waited. I left around like 1:30 AM and they were still there and she had to go back to work the next night.
So there are still concerns about how Peel is vaccinating its workers. These initiatives are fun and they’re great, and they make, uh, more time available for, for Peel residents to access, um, when it comes to vaccinations. But we have to wonder if there’s a better way to get needles in the arms of the workers who are hurting the most in this region.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, maybe rewind, um, three weeks, four weeks, I know time’s kind of lost its meaning, but you wrote a really exhaustive, detailed piece, uh, for an independent media publication called The Local. And I think it was the first time, it kind of blew up and I think it was the first time those of us outside the region [00:08:00] realized how bad and how dangerous things had gotten in Peel. What was it like at that point before any of these hotspot vaccinations had begun?
Fatima Syed: So, and again, time is a construct, but this was barely a month ago, right, when this piece came out.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Fatima Syed: Even then, Peel was really hurting. We had the second largest number of cases in the entire country. Um, we had the fewest number of vaccinations, um, because we just weren’t being provided with supply. And again, I’m saying we, because I’ve lived here for 10 years, so it’s just, uh, it’s, it’s a matter of habit.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right!
Fatima Syed: Peel Region has only three hospitals to serve 1.5 million people. There’s only one hospital in Brampton for close to 700,000 people. And before the pandemic started, Brampton City Council actually unanimously voted to declare a state of emergency in healthcare because there were people just on beds in [00:09:00] corridors, um-
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Pre COVID?
Fatima Syed: Pre COVID, and not that pre COVID, like two, three months before the pandemic was declared.
And, you know, Mississauga only has two hospitals. Um, and you kind of have to drive out to get to either of them or take the bus. So you can imagine how stretched these emergency rooms are. And well, you don’t even have to imagine it because I wrote about it, because I spoke to the doctors who were working there, who were just describing just how stretched resources were.
And that’s one of the reasons Peel has struggled for the past year and a bit. It’s because, um, we didn’t have enough healthcare resources, we had a large, very neglected essential workforce. Um, you know, and, and, and to, to set the scene for, for you on that, there’s a huge logistics and manufacturing hub in Peel Region, you know, many people have called it, the logistics capital of the country. We’ve got, you know, 40% of Amazon packages being produced [00:10:00] here. We produce the largest number, like chicken supply, peanut butter, ventilators. Like there’s a lot that’s processed and manufactured here.
And the workers in these factories, aren’t all like your settled Canadian citizens. They’re new immigrants, they’re temporary foreign worker. They’re international students. There’s a huge international student body here. And those were the precarious people who got COVID first, when it arrived.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Fatima Syed: Because they were the ones on the front lines and still are on the front lines and not receiving enough protection.
And then they sort of, you know, if they caught it, then their families caught it, you know, cause you know, because of the, the high housing prices in the region, people live together. Like you’ve got multiple generation under one roof. And so it just spread from workplace to families, to the community, and it’s been going like that ever since.
Um, so it was really, really bad and it is only just starting to get better, but even, [00:11:00] you know, Peel doctors will say.= That they’re cautiously optimistic because while we are vaccinating, um, a lot of people, I think we’ve crossed the 50% of adults threshold, the hospitals are still full. ICUs are still full. So, uh, you know, doses, uh, needles in arms don’t fix that immediately.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What happened after you wrote that piece? And I don’t mean to phrase it like that, uh, to give you credit for the push on this situation, but a lot kind of changed, I think, when people saw just how high that positivity, uh, numbers were in Peel when it was way ahead of Toronto, still is I believe in terms of cases per capita. What else has happened to make doctors cautiously optimistic?
Fatima Syed: Well, I think Ontario finally gave Peel some vaccine supply. And it’s still not enough, but you know, back when I wrote the piece a few weeks ago, we were like, 24th, uh, in the [00:12:00] province, when it came to vaccine supply, we were getting the same amount of vaccines that a place like Kingston, which is significantly smaller, was getting.
Um, and, and that didn’t make sense. So we got more vaccines, um, to deliver, to Peel residents. And we started setting up pop-up clinics. Unfortunately, the pop up clinics are a little chaotic, but they worked, right. People are getting vaccinated.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yup!
Fatima Syed: So that’s been the biggest change. But more than that, I think, and I don’t want to take the credit because I honestly don’t think I wrote anything that people didn’t know, I just connected the dots in a way that people didn’t realize. I think my story just helped give everyone a grounding to raise their voice. Like I’ve seen so many Peel residents, just neighbours, um, friends using that story as [00:13:00] a call for action, a call for change. Um, and it’s kind of overwhelming to have a story of yours do some, become something like that, become sort of, you know, the signpost that something’s wrong here and it needs to be fixed, but I think that’s what happened. Um, people started looking at Peel and seeing just how red the map was and said, okay, yeah, we need to, we need to do, um, something about this. Unfortunately, it started too late, but it has started.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What about the push and pull between the province and the municipal government? Because I know that that’s been a bit of a battle, especially over, you know, the, the restrictions and the workplaces, uh, that you mentioned.
Fatima Syed: Yeah, I think, so historically, as I described earlier, Peel Region has always been sort of a little neglected if not a lot neglected by the province. Um, you know, there are concrete reasons for that. Uh, Peel Region has just [00:14:00] grown so rapidly in the past few years, the last census was done in 2016 and based on that, our population is 1.5 million people, but you have to assume, especially if you live here, that it’s way more than that. And the province just hasn’t been able to keep up, whether it’s with healthcare funding or with, you know, municipal resources or whatever.
So that neglect has just shown us exactly what is wrong in the region, right? How much people are suffering just for basic needs, whether it is just healthcare. And unfortunately, during the pandemic that has meant that the mayors and doctors of Peel have had to fight tooth and nail for even just an ounce of attention and pandemic resources.
And it’s actually been really harrowing to see, because one would think that the numbers speak for themselves, right. Peel was number two in cases for a hundred thousand [00:15:00] people in Canada, not even Ontario. That number itself should have been like an urgent push for all levels of government to say, okay, let’s address it, because if the virus is spreading so rapidly, in this region, we should control it here and it’ll control everywhere else.
Um, and, and Peel mayors have been saying that from day one, you know, the airport is here, the logistics companies are here, you know, Amazon packages start here and go to your homes. Um, so if you stop the virus here, in theory, you stop it everywhere else.
Unfortunately Ontario’s, uh, pandemic policies have not reflected that. I can’t explain what the thinking behind Ontario’s pandemic policies are, but they really have neglected Peel Region. So that has led to a fight between, uh, you know, the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Lawrence Loh and the province.
And it’s several instances, [00:16:00] um, Dr. Loh has used the powers granted to his office to make his own decisions. He shut down schools before the province shut down schools. He shut down Amazon’s warehouse when they had an outbreak before the province shut down any workplaces. He extended the stay at home lockdown for Peel residents before the province, uh, extended the stay-at-home lockdown for the entire province.
Um, and, and, you know, if you talk to Dr. Loh, he will tell you that, “Yes, I have become the bad guy,” because he’s been pushed to make decisions for the safety of the residents that he serves when the province hasn’t had his back. And that’s me saying it, that’s not Dr. Loh saying it, that’s my analysis.
Um, so it’s been tense, politically it’s been a little tense, you know, the mayors have been careful because they have to work with the province, but they were also frustrated at many instances during the pandemic because they kept asking for things like paid sick leave so workers [00:17:00] could, you know, feel safe staying at home if they presented at symptoms rather than go to work and further spread the virus in the event that they had it. You know, they’ve been asking for just vaccines from the very beginning, they asked for mobile vaccine clinics, uh, you know, as soon as vaccine supplies were announced, but the province set their first one up in Toronto, not in Peel Region. And yes, Toronto had a lot of cases too, but it wasn’t number one. The biggest hotspot in Ontario was Peel Region and they didn’t get vaccines after everyone from mayors to doctors to residents begged the province for vaccines, quite frankly.
Um, and now we’re seeing a shift. And again, everyone that I interview who is in a leadership position is very, uh, diplomatic about the words they use, but sort of underlying their comments is the sense that the province could have done so much more.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I [00:18:00] also want to ask you a journalism question related to your piece in The Local. Um, you do a lot of work with the CAJ, uh, we talk journalism all the time, even if it’s nerdy for non journalist listeners. Why did it take an independent media publication to connect the dots on Peel Region? Toronto is a hub of newspapers. Um, we have more newspapers here than anywhere else in the country. The biggest newspapers in the country. Why was it left to an independent media outlet?
Fatima Syed: I think the news media industry is shrinking. So it’s hard for people to sometimes go beyond the neighbourhood or jurisdiction that they’re, they’re so comfortable covering. There’s not enough resources in newsrooms right now to put a reporter in every single city in Canada and cover it.
I am incredibly grateful to The Local for taking a [00:19:00] story that was turned down by four other publications. And for seeing merit in covering frankly, what should have been the biggest story of the pandemic from the beginning of the pandemic. It’s a microcosm of every failing of the pandemic. It’s, you know, we saw an inequitable response here. We saw, uh, a neglect of workers and racialized communities and immigrants and international students here. We saw government failure here of, of resources and, um, fair policies.
So I can’t tell you why people don’t cover Peel Region. I just hope that, you know, there are reporters like myself, um, not to sound braggy, but I just hope there are reporters like myself in cities across Canada. Who are able to tell the stories of their neighbourhoods in a [00:20:00] way that the rest of the country understands, because every city is struggling in its own way. And it is incumbent on us as Canadians to understand what’s happening in our country.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I hope you will appreciate how much restraint it’s taking me right now to move on without asking you who the four places that turned it down were. Anyway in the bigger picture, do you think that this has been eyeopening, um, for the provincial government, maybe for sure who, to your point, uh, it might’ve been going off the last census and not understanding what was going on in Peel? But also just for people around Canada or even in Toronto, who probably think of Peel, as I often have I think in the past, as just another suburb, um, another big suburb with suburban homes and families, as opposed to something that your package passes through like half the time, no matter where you live in Canada.
Fatima Syed: You know, when I interviewed Dr. Loh this [00:21:00] weekend, he was very optimistic. He was like, yes, the tide is turning, um, and hopefully we’ll see that reflected in our hospitals and across the community.
Um, I’m still a little cynical though. And the reason is because even after I wrote my story and I wrote a follow-up and I’ve done a lot more covered since then of what’s happening in Peel, you’re still seeing the province’s neglect manifest in weird ways. So for example, when paid sick leave was proposed for like the 20th time at Queens Park, uh, the government voted against it and among the members of the conservative government were seven MPPs that represented Peel Region.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Huh.
Fatima Syed: And that’s extremely disheartening to think about because those were MPPs that, in theory, understand the region, they understand exactly what residents are going through. They understand exactly how [00:22:00] workers are suffering. They understand exactly how few healthcare resources the region has, and they voted against paid sick leave, which is the one thing every doctor, every scientist, every worker is saying will help them stay safe and reduce the spread of the virus.
So based on that fact alone, I don’t know if things will change. What I do know is that I think Peel residents have found their voice and that has been very, very cool to see over the past year. Cause you know, when you hurt, when you suffer so much together, you start fighting back together. And I think, you know, it was extremely heartening to see that lineup this past weekend, because despite the odds, despite struggle, despite the fact that that woman that I told you about who works at a logistic company, um, for Aritzia, um, had to go to work the next day. She was doing [00:23:00] her part and she was doing the only thing she knew how to do. She was listening to medical advice and she was getting vaccinated as soon as she got the appointment.
Unfortunately, she was doing it on her own. And if we could rewind time, God, I hope we never rewind time, but if we could rewind time, um, maybe she wouldn’t have to be on her own. Maybe it was the workplace employer working with the government, working with the public health unit to give her the vaccine easily. Where she doesn’t have to get on a computer and try her luck, where she doesn’t have to stand in line with her kids past midnight, to get a vaccine, to protect them and to protect her colleagues in her warehouse, where she doesn’t feel exhausted, trying to keep herself safe, which is such a bare minimum human right.
I don’t know what happens after the pandemic, but I am trying to be as cautiously optimistic as Dr. Loh [00:24:00] is that things will change, that Peel will not be a hotspot once everyone is vaccinated, that everyone will be safe. But at the same time, I can’t help feel sad for all the workers, all the immigrants, all the families that have lost people.
You know, I think about the 10 airport limo drivers who died in the first few months of the pandemic in Peel Region, whose names we don’t even know. And that just, you know, that makes me extremely angry. And that makes me extremely cynical that if that didn’t change the government’s response, if that didn’t help push them to better protect Peel residents, what would have?
I think what most people in Ontario don’t understand is that there would be nothing in the Costco or the Walmart or the Loblaws near their house if there were no workers leaving their houses every single day during the pandemic in [00:25:00] Peel Region. Uh, I think people don’t understand that there would literally be no packages arriving at their doorstep if workers weren’t in the Amazon and Canada Post warehouses right now. Every time they decide to go on a trip or take an Uber or order a food delivery, there is a high chance that if you’re in the Toronto area, that person lives in Peel Region. And we’re now a year and a half in, and, um, it’s a little too late for me to celebrate any, uh, positive action that comes out of the government or any positive action that, uh, helps Peel Region, because I wished it had happened much, much sooner.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Fatima, thank you for doing this. It’s a pleasure to talk as always. And thank you for your work on Peel Region because, uh, not enough was being done.
Fatima Syed: Thanks for having me, Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Fatima Syed reports for many [00:26:00] outlets, including The Local, and she podcasts on The Back Bench. That was The Big Story, for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime via email, thebigstorypodcast, that’s all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And look us up in your favourite podcast player if you haven’t already. Better yet, take your friend’s phone, look us up in theirs. Make sure you subscribe or follow or whatever they call it. Rate us and review us.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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