The Pandemic Heroes

The Pandemic Heroes

So many Torontonians are stepping up. Here’s our by-no-means-exhaustive look at the amazing doctors, nurses, scientists, chefs, distillers, dancers, grocers and politicians who are making a difference in all our lives

The Front-Line Workers

Because they’re sacrificing their health and safety for ours

As millions of Canadians retreated home to fire up Netflix and contemplate sourdough starters, thousands continued to go to work, risking their health and safety to fight the pandemic and serve their community. They are the doctors, nurses, orderlies, support staff and other health care workers who treat the sick and dying despite terrifying shortages of surgical masks, N95 respirators, face shields and other personal protective equipment. They are the custodians who meticulously clean hospitals, nursing homes and grocery stores—an essential step to curb the spread of the virus. And they are the people who never imagined they’d be conscripted to the front line: grocery store employees, transit operators, couriers, veterinarians and construction workers, whose jobs were deemed essential by the province. Every day, they expose themselves to myriad others who, knowingly or not, carry Covid-19, as well as the surfaces where experts say it can linger. That burden is heavy. But instead of retreating, they bravely stepped forward. Recently, more than 450 licensed psychotherapists, psychologists and social workers in Ontario offered to provide free telephone therapy sessions to health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Medical students volunteered to coordinate child-care relief for front-line workers. Retired nurses and doctors returned to work to fight the novel coronavirus. Now it’s on everyone else to support the people who put their lives on the line by washing hands, staying inside and being alone, together.


Eileen de Villa

Medical officer of health for the City of Toronto
Because she is the prevailing voice of reason and calm

The city’s top doc is also its de facto parent. De Villa’s calm, steady, reliable manner makes her the ideal messenger for the city’s daily briefings. Since 2017, de Villa has overseen the country’s largest public health agency: 1,900 staff and a $255-million budget. In 2003, during the SARS crisis, she was doing a rotation through the TPH office, and watched Dr. Sheela Basrur, then Toronto’s chief medical officer, unflinchingly relay the most current medical data while maintaining public confidence. It’s a tricky balance, and de Villa nails it. She was the first to indicate the possibility of community transmission in Toronto, on March 16. She also recommended that bars, restaurants, theatres and nightclubs start closures that night, almost a week ahead of the Ontario order to close all non-essential businesses. She’s become something of a social media folk hero, with new memes popping up on social media almost daily.


Kamran Khan

Doctor, scientist, start-up CEO
Because he sounded the alarm

Khan, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of Toronto, was inspired by his experience as a doctor at St. Mike’s during the SARS epidemic to create a global early warning system for pandemics. BlueDot, founded in 2014, uses artificial intelligence to comb through mountains of data from health organizations, news reports, airlines, the agriculture industry and more. On December 31, BlueDot sent an alert to subscribers—governments, hospitals, businesses and more—five days before the World Health Organization released a notification about an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, and more than two months before they declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. BlueDot’s notice spurred its clients to begin screening travellers and changing diagnostic criteria. Now, as the outbreak spreads, Khan is working with governments around the world to model transmission rates and guide policy responses.


Kamal Khera

MP, nurse
Because she answered the call

When the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario put out a plea for nurses to make themselves available to care for patients over the phone, Kamal Khera didn’t let her day job as the federal member for Brampton West get in the way. On March 17, the 31-year-old Liberal MP, who worked at St. Joseph’s Health Centre before running for office, announced that she’d signed up to help because virtual nursing could “significantly reduce wait times” at hospitals. Six days later, she tested positive for the virus. Isolated at home and suffering symptoms, she continued both her parliamentary and nursing work while using her Twitter account to share public health information, government advice and the occasional Covid-19 meme. “We will get through this together,” Khera said in a statement. Her personal example of selflessness, humour and bravery showed us how.


Gurjit Bajwa

ER doctor
Because his antiviral message went viral

Gurjit Bajwa is an unlikely social media star. In a cellphone video released on March 21, the doctor, who has worked in the emergency room at Etobicoke General Hospital for nearly two decades, appeared in scrubs and wire-framed spectacles, looking rumpled and fatigued. But his message was impossible to ignore: “We need to get away from each other…if we don’t, a tsunami is coming.” His obvious credibility and matter-of-fact delivery cut through the information overload. The English and Punjabi versions of the video were viewed hundreds of thousands of times. If just a fraction of the people who watched it follow Bajwa’s advice to stay home and act like they already have Covid-19, he may have already saved more lives online than he will in the ER.


The Microbiologists

Robert Kozak, Samira Mubareka and Arinjay Banerjee
Because they isolated the virus

In early March, while the rest of the country was doing its best to avoid Covid-19, a team of Ontario researchers were doing their best to create the thing. Kozak and Mubareka, microbiologists who both work at Sunnybrook, and Banerjee, a postdoc at McMaster, were among the first doctors in the world to isolate SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the outbreak of Covid-19. After extracting a sample from one of the first Canadian patients with the disease, they were able to replicate and grow the virus. That step enabled other labs to work on potential solutions, instantly accelerating the global search for both antivirals and a vaccine. Kozak, who has worked on other diabolical viruses like Zika and Ebola, says trials for therapies and antivirals are going on right now, and he is optimistic that vaccine candidates will be in trials by the end of the year.


The PPE Suppliers

Wenzhounese in Ontario and Dr. Michael Warner
Because they provided protective medical gear to front-line workers

Toronto’s hospital workers have emerged as heroes during the coronavirus crisis, working long hours and dealing with intense psychological and emotional stress as cases continue to pour in and hospital beds fill. Wenzhounese in Ontario, a Chinese-Canadian community organization, donated 3,000 isolation gowns, 90 pairs of goggles and 85 N95 masks to North York General. In the early days of the pandemic, Michael Warner, an intensive care doctor at Michael Garron Hospital, grew worried about the global supply chain of masks, gloves, goggles and gowns, and sprang to action. He organized a donation drive to collect unopened, unexpired personal protective equipment to offset the dire need. From March 23 to April 3, donations from the construction industry, cosmetic surgeons, exterminators and more poured in, saving an untold number of lives.


Mohamad Fakih

Founder and CEO, Paramount Fine Foods
Because he’s feeding doctors, nurses, caregivers and more

Fakih is no stranger to community engagement. In 2018, he partnered with the UN Refugee Agency in Canada to assist Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, and in 2016, during the Syrian refugee crisis, Fakih committed to hiring refugees at his many restaurants across Ontario. During the pandemic, he stepped up again: as restaurants—some Paramount locations among them—have been forced to temporarily shutter or pivot to takeout and delivery only, Fakih began offering 50 per cent off all Paramount food to front-line caregivers and workers. On top of that, his restaurants are continuously donating meals to food banks and shelters across the GTA, including the Mississauga Food Bank and the Stop Community Food Centre.


The Food Providers

Jagger Gordon of Feed it Forward; Rafee Syed, Sadalam Sheikh and Nadeem Imani of Victoria Supermarket; and Nick Saul of Community Food Centres Canada
Because they’re keeping the city’s most vulnerable fed

In the early days of the pandemic, while Torontonians stormed the supermarkets, food advocates across the GTA mobilized to ensure the city’s most vulnerable weren’t left behind. Gordon, the owner of a pay-what-you-can grocery store in the Junction, pledged to make 30,000 meals, using food donated from their partners—free or wholesale. In Scarborough, Rafee Syed, Sadalam Sheikh and Nadeem Imani of Victoria Supermarket offered four pounds of daal and eight pounds of rice to any person who needed it, no questions asked. And Nick Saul, CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, launched a $3-million relief fund to keep his 200 partner organizations well-stocked and running, and to help distribute to people with limited mobility emergency hampers filled with several weeks’ worth of food.


The Doctors of Tomorrow

Jordynn Klein, Daniel Lee, Tingting Yan and Orly Bogler
Because they’re providing child care for health care workers’ kids

Health care workers on the front lines fighting Covid-19 have no time to line up for groceries or search for child care amid school and daycare closures. They’re already stretched to their limits working high-intensity shifts. The next generation of health care professionals generously came to their aid. Not long after the pandemic hit, a group of med students at the University of Toronto—led by Klein, Lee, Yan and Bogler—put out a call offering child care, pet care and help with grocery shopping. They signed up 400 volunteers, all of whom went through detailed safety checks, to aid 200 health care workers in just over a week by reaching out to their classmates and posting call-outs on social media. The initiative has since expanded to other medical schools in the country and into the United States.


Matthew Pegg

Toronto fire chief and GM of the Office of Emergency Management
Because every day, he douses the flames of Covid-19 panic

Every day at 3:45 p.m., Matthew Pegg goes on camera with de Villa and issues straightforward updates for a rapidly changing city in its first-ever state of emergency. As head of Toronto’s operational response to Covid-19, Pegg coordinates efforts across all agencies and divisions to ensure residents are protected, but at these briefings, he finds the time for a reassuring adjective or four: our emergency response systems, he promises, are nimble and scalable; our electricity network is reliable and safe. Not long into this strange new reality, he added some other modifiers: in a self-filmed video, eyebrows knitted, Pegg told us it was okay to feel anxious and scared. He tweeted links to the city’s stress-management resources, alongside a reminder to check our smoke alarms. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, a fire chief’s habits die hard.


The Distillers

Spirit of York, Reid’s Distillery, Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers, Junction 56, and Hiram Walker and Sons Distillery
Because they’re producing hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer was one of the first products to experience a surge in demand in the early days of the pandemic. Stores quickly sold out. What wasn’t in short supply, however, was its main ingredient: alcohol. Local small-batch distilleries such as Toronto’s Spirit of York and Reid’s Distillery, Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers in Beamsville, Junction 56 in Stratford and Hiram Walker and Sons Distillery in Walkerville all converted their facilities into temporary hand sanitizer factories to combat price gouging and panic buying. The makeshift antibacterial gloop was distributed free of charge to the RCMP, health care workers, delivery people and anyone working on the front lines of the pandemic. Spirit of York sold bottles for $3 and donated proceeds to food banks.


Chrystia Freeland

Deputy prime minister
Because she’s coordinating the federal response with grace and fortitude

Even before Justin Trudeau was quarantined and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was tasked with overseeing the federal Covid-19 response, they were calling her the minister of everything. Since she was first elected in 2013, Freeland has successfully tamed Trump, saved NAFTA, navigated the economic meltdown of Venezuela, and so much more. In the fearsome face of the pandemic, she stepped up yet again, working closely with Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam and Health Minister Patty Hajdu to coordinate new recommendations and policies around physical distancing and quarantine, asylum seekers, and travel. For the thousandth time, Freeland has proven herself capable of both great tenderness—publicly thanking, for example, the country’s children for enduring this difficult moment—and steely resolve: when Trump threatened to post troops on the U.S.-Canada border, Freeland told him no dice.


Tai Huynh

Creative director, OpenLab
Because he’s making life easier for low-income seniors

In early March, when pictures of panicked shoppers stripping grocery shelves bare began to dominate the news, Tai Huynh started to worry. How would Toronto’s seniors, especially those from low-income housing, who are at a higher risk of serious complications from Covid-19 and less physically able to line up in crowded grocery stores, get essential items? The creative director at OpenLab, an interdisciplinary innovation group at University Health Network, took the problem to his team. They came up with the Friendly Neighbour Hotline, a phone number seniors in need could call to organize deliveries of essential supplies. More than 750 Torontonians volunteered to be shoppers and drivers, and the service went live on March 23, just 10 days after OpenLab announced the idea.


Doug Ford

Premier
Because he became the leader we needed

Rational and measured—two words pretty much never used to describe our antagonistic premier. But Ford has morphed into the leader no one saw coming. He has curtailed his bombastic style for a serious and empathetic tone, and his moves so far have had almost unilateral support. He introduced legislation that provides job-protected leave to employees in quarantine, or those at home caring for a spouse or their parents, or for kids because of school or daycare closures. He urged Ontario manufacturers to retool their businesses to make in-demand medical supplies, and he temporarily rolled back electricity rates.


Galen G. Weston

Executive chairman, Loblaw Companies Ltd.
Because he’s keeping vital supplies and medication flowing

As the pandemic set in, the bespectacled commander of Canada’s largest retailer—1,090 stores, which provide about a third of the country’s groceries, and 1,343 full-service pharmacies—reassured panicky Canadians that their supply of food and meds wasn’t in jeopardy. To ensure that remained the case, he wisely reduced store hours to give employees (close to 200,000 of them) time for extra sanitization and rest, established exclusive shopping hours for seniors and those with disabilities, and limited the number of customers in each store to allow for social distancing. He temporarily increased wages for store and distribution-centre employees by 15 per cent, and installed plexiglass shields at checkout counters. Competitors like Sobeys and Walmart implemented similar measures, but it was Weston, long known to the public for starring in President’s Choice commercials, who emerged as the industry leader.


Jamie Campbell

Sportscaster
Because he’s keeping spirits high for baseball diehards

Professional sports were one of the earliest casualties of the Covid-19 crisis. The NBA was the first to postpone its season, and the NHL and MLB quickly followed. That left Jamie Campbell, the host of Blue Jays Central on Sportsnet, with more time than usual. He volunteered to call elderly and isolated baseball fans across Canada to talk about the game. Some 2,000 diehards took him up on the offer, and the calls—hundreds and counting to date—had the desired effect. “[My aunt] told my mom that she will remember your call for the rest of her life. :)” wrote one Twitter user. “Thank you for calling my grandma this morning!!!! She was so excited,” wrote another. The move inspired other Toronto sports personalities, like Jays play-by-play man Buck Martinez, Raptors reporter Eric Smith and columnist Jeff Blair, to start making their own calls.


John Tory

Mayor
Because he’s making the unpopular, necessary decisions

Being the mayor of any large city generally requires you to be equal parts corporate lawyer, high school principal and captain of the cheerleading squad. Being the mayor of a large city during a pandemic, however, requires you to be only one, counterintuitive, thing—a killjoy. John Tory accepted this new role with aplomb, first holing up in his condo for 14 days following a business trip. From his aerie overlooking Varsity Stadium, Tory did media interviews, conducted conference calls with the Emergency Operations Centre and, like we all do now, FaceTimed with family. When he emerged, with Covid-19 cases surging and scofflaws still defying park closures, an angry, anxious Tory enacted the largest mobilization of city staff and resources ever. Anyone with symptoms was ordered to stay at home for 14 days, and the rest of us were urged to do the same, while all city-led events, festivals and conferences were cancelled until June 30. Killjoys save lives.


The Ministers of Fun

Mingus New, Brad Allen, Andrés Sierra and Casey MQ, organizers of Club Quarantine; and Nick Green, founder of the Social Distancing Festival
Because they’re creating joy in a dark time

Once upon a time—like, February—Club Quarantine could have been mistaken for the hottest nightclub in a SNL sketch. Now, it’s the hottest queer party in a video conferencing app, a nightly Zoom rave where hundreds of dancers serve lewks in their living rooms and British singer Charli XCX pops by to DJ a set. Launched by four friends, Club Q has a virtual bouncer (hate speech gets you banned) and a PayPal link (so performers hit by Covid-19 can make some cash). Across town, playwright Nick Green wanted to find a way to preserve the performances, his own included, that had been called off as the pandemic spread. In its first two weeks, his Social Distancing Festival hosted dance from Tanzania, electro-pop from Spain and opera from the Netherlands.


Stephen Hunter

CEO, Sunwing Travel Group
Because he brought stranded Canadians home

When governments issued lockdowns and travel advisories resulting in closed borders and grounded flights, Canadians found themselves stranded abroad, looking to get home in a hurry. Stephen Hunter, CEO of the Etobicoke-based tour operator Sunwing, decided to provide repatriation flights—that is, planes left the country empty and came back full—for more than 60,000 Canadians in 45 destinations across the U.S., the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. Some 3,000 of those stranded Canadians were given unsold seats on Sunwing’s dime. All told, the tour operator sank more than $26 million into the effort. Hunter’s reasoning: “It was the Canadian thing to do.”


Bill Morneau

Finance minister
Because he coordinated the bailout

There are few higher-pressure jobs than drawing up the country’s economic battle plan. Morneau, known on the Hill for his unflappability, was the cool head in command. The Toronto Centre MP launched $107 billion in emergency aid and economic stimulus, including $52 billion to directly help Canadians and $55 billion in deferred tax payments for businesses and individuals. The Libs tabled a bill that, along with changes to the food and drugs act, the labour code, the national housing act and the student loans act, quickly gets money into the hands of Canadians. Morneau is on the hook to think long term, and to have businesses big and small ready to flat-out run when the outbreak is contained. But, like everyone else, he’s also wrapped up in the day-to-day: his godson and his sister in Switzerland were recently diagnosed with Covid-19.


Tariq Syed

Founder, the Good Neighbour Project
Because he arranged help for seniors in need

Tariq Syed, a business analyst, was out stocking up on essentials when he noticed a number of senior citizens shopping alone, struggling with mobility and unable to find key provisions. Two days later, he started the Good Neighbour Project, which connects available, able-bodied individuals with people in need. The way it works is simple: someone posts a callout looking for a volunteer to run an errand or make a delivery; group members who are willing to take on the task sign up in the comments; and presto: community-organized assistance for people in need. Members of the Good Neighbour Project are following social-distancing protocols, of course: these are no-contact deliveries, and hand sanitizer is used before and after.