By Jessica Smith Cross and Sneh Duggal
Inside Queen's Park on Monday, MPPs held a moment of silence for Emily Victoria Viegas, a 13-year-old Brampton girl who died from COVID-19.
Outside, some front-line health-care workers and experts started pointing fingers at many of those same politicians.
"It really hits home the importance of the kinds of decisions our politicians are making," Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and advocate for health equity, told QP Briefing. "Her death is on every politician who didn't support evidence-based science and support essential workers through policies like paid sick leave."
That view was Viegas's death was not only a tragedy but a preventable one was shared Monday by other front-line health-care workers and experts who have become frustrated with the provincial government's COVID response.
The Globe and Mail first reported the circumstances of her death: on the morning of April 22, she was found unresponsive in her bed in her family's apartment and later pronounced dead in hospital. Her mother was already hospitalized with COVID-19 while her father, a warehouse worker, was in isolation and hadn't been sure if he should call an ambulance. He "knew Brampton Civic was one of the most strained hospitals in the country and he feared his daughter might be taken to a hospital further away in another Toronto suburb," the paper reported.
An online fundraiser has raised more than $70,000 for her family. (Photo left, from the GoFundMe campaign.)
For Dosani, considering the child's death preventable is not quite as simple as blaming the Ontario government for failing to prevent the third wave of COVID-19. It's the severe ramifications of this wave, measured in suffering and death, that could have been reduced, he said.
"Her death is a consequence of poor decisions that would have essentially prevented this," said Dosani. "Had we had earlier interventions around public health restrictions, had our politicians intervened around social policies, and had they really thought about the needs of racialized communities, low-income areas, and essential workers, there wouldn't be so much community spread, and therefore we wouldn't have these tragic cases."
Dosani's work is on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, but he said the death of Viegas may be a tipping point for the general public, opening the eyes of some people and galvanizing those who are already frustrated.
"Sometimes we become numb to the numbers, the case counts, to things that we may not see with our own eyes, such as the scenes that are being described in hospitals," he said.
"There are no silver linings when a child dies but I do hope it can be a springboard towards action from our government and that they recognize that the public has had it at this point," Dosani said. "They are upset about an inequitable vaccine rollout, they are upset that our politicians are playing politics with people's lives, and they're upset about a lack of support for the essential workers who are bearing the brunt of this wave."
"If this doesn't get our politicians to start moving, this tragedy, I don't know what will."
Premier Doug Ford remained in isolation after a potential COVID-19 exposure on Monday but released an emailed media statement.
“My heart absolutely breaks for this family," he said. "I can’t imagine the unbearable pain and sorrow they are feeling right now. It’s heart-wrenching and a devastating reminder of what this virus can do. On behalf of all Ontarians, I’m sending my deepest condolences to everyone who is suffering from the terrible loss of this young life.”
In question period, deputy premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott also offered her condolences.
"She was a young woman who was just starting out in her life and it is a tragic situation that she passed away," she said. "However, we all need to remember that we are working as hard as we can to bring vaccinations to as many people as possible."
Elliott also stressed that Ontario's hospitals can still care for people: "We do have the resources in our hospitals to be able to care for anyone who comes in with COVID or with any other life-threatening illness. That is why were are building up the hospital capacity by creating more spaces in our hospitals and also by building up our health human resources so that anyone who needs to be in intensive care in an Ontario hospital will have a place there."
Her comments were in response to a question from Brampton East MPP Gurratan Singh who'd asked how many deaths it will take before Brampton is given the support it needs to fight COVID-19.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath offered condolences to Viegas's family and friends as well. She also said that signs people are avoiding going to hospitals suggest they've lost trust in the Ford government.
"Our hospitals are becoming overwhelmed," she said. "People just don't trust what the government says anymore. They've had poor communication and when the front-line experts are clamouring for a government that actually does the right thing, I think everyday Ontarians are justified in being concerned about whether what's coming out of the mouth of a minister or the premier is actually the truth."
Provincial Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called the news of Viegas's death "terribly heartbreaking."
"When I read it last night I could barely bring myself to finish the entire story," said Del Duca during a Monday morning press conference, noting that one of his daughters is the same age as Viegas was. "I just can’t imagine what it must have been like for Emily to go through getting sick and going through the anguish of that for her mom and dad, it’s just beyond devastating to consider."
He urged the government to bring forward the sick leave program that it promised last week right away.
"This is about listening to the scientists, delivering paid sick leave ... urgently, delivering at whatever the cost, so people like Emily’s dad, if they get sick, if they’re not feeling well, if they have to get vaccinated, if they have to get tested, they don’t have to worry about not being able to pay for their rent or pay for their groceries or support their family," said Del Duca, adding that all measures to tackle the third wave need to be put in place.
Online, a Liberal candidate and PC MPP sparred over the child's death: MPP Rudy Cuzzetto appeared to blame the federal government for a lack of travel restrictions, sparking pushback from Jill Promoli, who decided to run for the Liberals after losing her son to the flu.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown offered condolences on social media and told CP24 on Monday morning that "it’s a dark day for our city today."
"It stings not just the family, the neighbours, the friends, the classmates, the hospital staff, our health-care workers, imagine trying to resuscitate a 13-year-old, (it's) just beyond your worst nightmare," Brown told the news channel, pointing out that Viegas's father was an essential worker in a warehouse.
He stressed the need to vaccinate essential workers and defended the move by Peel's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh to issue a Section 22 order that would allow him to close workplaces with five or more cases within a two-week period for 10 days.
"When we’ve been screaming from the top of our lungs, vaccinate essential workers, vaccinate essential workers, vaccinate essential workers, we were making that plea as public servants because that’s what ... the medical officer of health was saying, focus in a targeted manner where these outbreaks are happening, these outbreaks are happening disproportionately in these essential workplaces," said Brown.
"No business, no matter how important they are to Canada’s supply chain, no business, no corporation is more important than public health and when we say that it’s because of cases like this, it’s because of tragedies like this. There are real names, there are real heart-wrenching stories when we don’t take action," he added.