COVID-19 in Canada’s Metropolis


Toronto has handled the pandemic outbreak better than many large cities around the world. But the disease has also revealed social divides.

Toronto Skyline

In normal times Toronto is the pulsebeat of Canada, a city whose greater metropolitan area comprises more than a third of the country’s entire population. The city is famous for its incredible ethnic diversity and for being the intellectual and artistic hub of Canada. But amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, that dynamism has come to a standstill. The bustling streets of Toronto’s downtown core have been deserted, while a great silence has descended over the massive urban sprawl that surrounds the city. Perhaps one small mercy: the crippling gridlock that normally makes getting around so difficult in normal times has, at least for now, been eased.

Toronto is in many ways a unique city. Not only is it the metropolitan hub of the second largest country on earth it is also one of the most ethnically diverse urban areas on the planet. More than half of the nine million people in the Greater Toronto Area are visible minorities, representing more than 250 different ethnicities and a staggering 170 languages. Rather than a source of anxiety, Toronto has made multiculturalism the core of its civic identity. The official motto of Toronto is “Diversity is our Strength,” and the distinctly international flavor of its cultural output seems to reflect that.

At the same time the incredible diversity of the city means that the pandemic can affect it in peculiar ways. In major cities in the United States and the United Kingdom the impact of the coronavirus has come down disproportionately on minority and immigrant communities. Part of the reason for this is that these communities do a greater share of the healthcare, transportation and logistical work that the virus has revealed as necessary, still continuing even as the rest of society shuts down. The labor situation is similar in Toronto, where minorities make up a large share of the critical workforce and are still out in the streets, hospitals and warehouses doing the labor that society needs to function.

But whereas in the U.S. and U.K. there is data to show that some communities are being hit harder by coronavirus, in Toronto, at least initially, there was not the information to make such a determination. When the initial waves of the virus began to hit Toronto, the city did not have in place data collection to determine its impact by race and ethnicity. After initially resisting such calls and deeming such collection unnecessary, local officials last week shifted gears in the face of public criticism and announced that they will begin gathering data on how coronavirus has affected minorities.

Experts say that having this type of knowledge in an extremely diverse city like Toronto is not a luxury but something that should be considered critical for making public policy. The differences in public health outcomes amid a pandemic can break down along also racial and ethnic lines but also according to class, which remains a major dividing line between the city and its suburbs.

“People in Toronto have adhered to public health advice and done as much as possible to physically distance. In consequence of their efforts, they’ve made a significant difference in shape of the curve. The problem with the public policy response however is that it has taken a one-size fits all approach to a complex city,” says Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based public health research institute.

McKenzie notes that the demographic and economic differences in the population make a big difference in how effectively individuals and households can put in practice public health guidelines like social distancing. In many parts of the city, particularly among immigrant communities, it is common for households to include people from large extended families whose ages range widely. Our knowledge of the coronavirus is still evolving, but all evidence so far suggests that the disease is most lethal towards the elderly. This can be a problem in households where younger people in critical jobs must work outside the home to support their extended families, even as other sectors of society shift to remote-work.

“Toronto is a very expensive place to live and the amount of space you have to physically distance is highly dependent on the amount of money you’ve got. It is much easier to distance when you’re living alone than in an intergenerational household.” adds McKenzie. “People of low income are much more likely to live in crowded conditions. But seniors from racialized backgrounds living alone are also still likely to rely on extended family for support.”

Although the virus has crippled the economic and social life of the city, Toronto has so far been spared the terrible waves of death and disease that have hit some cities in the United States, particularly New York. The city is averaging a few hundred infections a day. Canada-wide, as of the end of April, the country is nearing a total of 3,000 deaths so far from the virus. This can be compared with the tens of thousands dead in the United States and the terrible impacts upon its largest city.

The province of Ontario, of which Toronto is the capital, is making plans to begin reopening the local economy piecemeal. While it is still unclear what this would look like, any loosening of social distancing requirements will likely mean an increased stress on the healthcare system and a greater number of deaths. As painful as that would be, these losses might be deemed a necessary tradeoff to get the gears of the local economy turning again. However it is unlikely to be the last word on the disease. Public health experts around the world have warned that the coronavirus is likely to return in force in the fall and winter months. If and when it does, further shutdowns and disruptions in major cities like Toronto are likely.

The pandemic crisis has offered a sharp contrast between the Canadian socioeconomic model and that of the United States. Thanks in part to aggressive government intervention and a robust health care system, Canadians have so far been spared the catastrophic job losses and waves of death and disease that have affected many Americans. But even in a country with a strong social safety net and a government willing to be proactive in defending the wellbeing of its citizenry, people can still fall through the cracks.

“People can have a false impression of public health standards in Canada because of the existence of free healthcare. There remain other issues like the absence of mandatory paid sick leave that can endanger people who are forced to work,” says Linxi Mytkolli, the manager of the national summit and innovation labs at Youthful Cities, a think tank based in Toronto. “Toronto in particular is a very multicultural and diverse city, which is what drives a lot of its dynamism. But right now we need detailed information about who is getting sick and dying during this virus, because diversity can also correlate with serious inequalities.”