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Brampton Amazon outbreak exposes racism and classism of COVID-19

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsLabour

While Amazon’s greed is no surprise, the Brampton outbreak reignites issues of race and class that have been essential to understanding how COVID has affected Canadians in an unequal manner. Photo by Phil Murphy/Flickr.

Last week, an Amazon fulfillment centre in Brampton, Ontario was forced to close down due to a massive COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. To be clear, cases at this 5,000-worker distribution centre have been a persistent reality, with over 600 since October 2020. But in the past two weeks alone, cases have risen 40 percent to 240. This includes some of the newer COVID-19 variants which are causing additional concern among public health authorities. The outbreak led Peel Public Health to close the facility over the weekend.

Amazon, while saying they care deeply about their workers and their safety, are fighting tooth and nail to keep the facility open by appealing the Peel decision, insisting they have done all they can. But as Peel medical officer Lawrence Loh noted, Amazon has been the only large employer requiring a mandatory shutdown order, because most have been compliant with investigators. “In many of our workplace investigations,” said Loh, “[Amazon] have complied voluntarily and closed upon our recommendations without the need for a workplace 22.”

This shows that Amazon, known already for its cruel treatment of workers—such that even breaking to urinate was so discouraged that workers relieved themselves in bottles—is prioritizing profits over lives, public health, and human dignity. It’s no wonder that this is the same company using underhanded tactics to bust a potentially historic union drive in Alabama, something Senator Bernie Sanders and even US President Joe Biden have decried, if only in vague terms from the latter.

But while Amazon and CEO Jeff Bezos’s greed and lust for power is no surprise, the Brampton outbreak reignites many of the issues of race and class that have been essential to understanding how COVID-19 has affected Canadians in an unequal manner. Even back in 2020, sources like the Globe and Mail reported that communities like Brampton—large municipalities with diverse populations—have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. While some Ontarians reflexively blamed this on working class communities of colour, the reality is that these communities face the very sort of workplaces—like Amazon warehouses—that are not only dangerous but essential given the reliance upon e-commerce during the pandemic, with few people visiting brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

This leads to a cruel cycle of discrimination and racism. Companies like Amazon exploit workers in communities that are far more racialized than the average Ontario and Canadian cities and towns, which in turn cause higher COVID caseloads. This is often accompanied by data suggesting that those in these communities who get COVID are far more likely to experience severe bouts of the virus. And all this is used by some to perpetuate narratives that certain racialized communities—south and east Asian demographics in particular—bear responsibility for the pandemic hitting Canada. Even Progressive Conservative Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown has pushed back against these narratives, saying that Canadians depend upon the “unsung heroes” that drive much of the country’s logistics out of these hubs.

Ultimately, then, the issue isn’t with communities of colour, but exploitative companies, and a provincial government led by Doug Ford that refuses to put workers first, rejecting essential proposals around paid sick leave that are imperative when it comes to promoting public health and worker safety. The provincial government’s failures don’t end there. First, it must be remembered that Brampton, despite a population of 600,000 people, only has one hospital, meaning that there are fewer resources to care for seriously ill people. But this longer-term trend is exacerbated by the fact that the new Ontario pharmacy COVID vaccine program does not include a single location within hard-hit communities like Brampton or Mississauga.

As Brampton East MPP Gurratan Singh noted last week, Ontario has opened 325 pharmacies to offer vaccinations in Toronto, Kingston, and Windsor-Essex, which will help to increase access to the life-saving injection for those in their early 60s. But while this is being billed as a ‘pilot’ program for a wider rollout, Singh is right to question why communities like Brampton have been left out despite already weak medical infrastructure along with high current and historic caseloads.

And when pressed on why workers in such high density and essential workplaces—like those at the Brampton Amazon warehouse—have not been given some level of priority when it comes to vaccine allocation—something health officials think could slow transmission—the Ford government could only suggest those workers will get vaccinated as part of the general rollout, perhaps in cooperation with their employers at some later date. But those workers are suffering and dying now, so that the rest of us may stay home.

Hopefully, the advent of the vaccine will soon put this horrid pandemic behind us, even if that time is still months away. But the challenges intensified by COVID will not dissolve once life returns to some semblance of ‘normalcy.’ Racism, classism, discrimination, weak labour legislation, lack of respect for essential workers, and diminishing investment in healthcare will all continue to rear their ugly heads. Going forward, we must challenge the ethos of capitalism if want to build a just world out of the ashes of the crisis.

Christo Aivalis is political writer and commentator with a PhD in History. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and Passage. He can be found daily on YouTube and at his new podcast Left Turn, Canada.

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