When looking at the daily updates and numbers of COVID-19 cases in Alberta, there’s a theme that’s easy to spot — Calgary’s northeast has a serious problem.
Calgary – Upper NE is one of 132 “local geographic areas” (or LGAs) that the province uses in reporting COVID-19 cases.
It covers the bulk of the northeast quadrant, including newer communities that sit north of McKnight Boulevard, as well as a portion that stretches down to where 16th Avenue N.E. meets Deerfoot Trail.
Around 115,000 people call the upper northeast area of Calgary home.
The number of active COVID-19 cases there surpassed 1,000 last week, a number not seen anywhere else in the province at any time during the pandemic. As of Sunday, there were 1,194 cases. That’s double the numbers seen earlier in the month.
For many weeks now, the northeast has secured the unenviable position of being the number one spot in Alberta for active cases.
So what’s driving such extreme numbers in one part of the city?
On the front lines
People who live and work in the northeast say there are many reasons that make their communities easy pickings for a virus that thrives on density and easy opportunities for transmission.
Those opportunities vary from residents working public-facing, low-income jobs with no opportunity to work from home, to a culture of large, multi-generational households in densely populated neighbourhoods.
“It is a concern. Many people in this part of the city are working multiple jobs on the front lines and they’re in contact with a lot of people,” said Ward 5 Coun. George Chahal. “There’s a higher risk to exposure, but I think everybody’s doing their best to ensure they’re being safe, but more importantly keeping others safe.
“Social distancing and wearing masks is important, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Many said they thought the types of jobs worked by those living in the northeast could represent the number one factor behind the high COVID-19 numbers.
“The biggest reason is the majority of people are immigrants and newcomers and they are doing blue-collar jobs,” said Dan Sidhu, a realtor with his own weekly Punjabi radio show who has called the northeast home for 25 years.
“Lots of people work at places like Cargill and Lilydale or furniture factories. They’re doing housekeeping and cleaning jobs around the city. There are also transport workers, truckers and taxi drivers.”
Sidhu said many people in the northeast don’t have the luxury of working from home and are more exposed in their day-to-day lives.
“We have to go out to work to make our living and pay our bills. We don’t have much choice,” Sidhu said.
In addition to employment, there are also large multi-family households made up of South Asian immigrant families that settle around each other in northeast communities.
“The majority of families here are joint families. Seniors live with them, mother-in-laws and father-in-laws, mothers and fathers and children. You can easily have six or seven family members,” said Sidhu, adding that COVID-19 spreads to a greater number of people once it finds its way into a family setting.
Others talk quietly about the possibility that some cultural factors unique to South Asian communities could give COVID-19 more opportunities to take hold.
Some of those factors mentioned include:
- a stigma in the community around being sick and telling others.
- a deeply embedded culture of hospitality.
- meal sharing and inviting guests into the home.
- a tradition of large family gatherings and events like weddings and birthdays along with a busy calendar of religious events.
- in some cases, language barriers limiting information around best practices when it comes to health measures.
Languages spoken commonly in the home in the northeast include Punjabi and Urdu. Filipino families speak Tagalog along with others who speak Spanish and Vietnamese at home. Some can’t communicate in English at all.
Worried about being blamed
Some residents said they are worried about being stigmatized, criticized and blamed for the rising number of cases from people in other parts of the city and province.
A few said they’re embarrassed by the high case numbers and say they are victims of circumstance, and do not want to be blamed for personal negligence or for not taking the virus seriously enough.
The northeast of the city is also where many newcomers and refugees settle in the days and weeks after arriving in Canada. It’s where the cost of living is cheapest and where jobs and many vital supports exist, including the Centre for Newcomers.
“We see a disproportionate number of newcomers working in industries where they’d have a much higher rate of being in contact with somebody that has COVID,” said Anila Lee Yuen, CEO of the Centre for Newcomers.
“They find jobs in retail, service industries, health-care and long-term care facilities and that [increases] the likelihood.”
Lee Yuen said newcomers tend to be around larger volumes of people, both at home and at work.
“You’ve got people coming from cultures that are very collective in nature so the entire community is built around that,” she said. “You have a more densely packed population, so even when people are adhering to the best possible safety protocols, there could still be issues.”
She said housing density and a reliance on transit and car sharing also need to be taken into account, along with larger family cohorts than other parts of the city. Language barriers can also make official information harder to access.
“The ethno-cultural media and the settlement agencies and other agencies have done a wonderful job of getting that information out there, especially through social media,” said Lee Yuen.
“It does come translated from the government and it is widespread, but the bigger issue is people are confused about the rules and what they can and can’t do. But that’s in the general population too.”
Lee Yuen said the whole concept of cohorts and bubbles took time for many Albertans to understand, but for non-English speaking Albertans, it’s even more challenging.
Religion and worship
Religion is a big part of the fabric of life in northeast Calgary’s South Asian community, and with worship comes large gatherings.
Throughout 2020, places of worship have been open with limited capacity, enhanced safety measures and at times closed altogether.
Under the most recent measures announced by the provincial government, churches, mosques, temples and other places of worship are currently only allowed to operate at one third of their capacity with mandatory masking in place.
Major religious events and celebrations from Ramadan to Eid and Diwali have all looked a lot different this year. Some places of worship are now going above and beyond the requirements laid out by the province.
“We’re not even letting anyone sit. We’re going even further in what we’re doing in that they come, they pray and they go right away,” said Amanpreet Singh Gill with the Dashmesh Culture Centre, a large gurdwara where thousands of northeast Sikhs go to pray.
“We are trying our best and people are following it. We encourage everyone to be safe. Social interactions are dangerous and we encourage everyone to limit gatherings like weddings too.”
The centre is also taking prayers online for those staying away, streaming on social media.
Mosques have been doing the same thing with live prayers, sermons and programs from local imams, who said Friday prayers are the only in-person worship being permitted. Prayers typically last less than 15 minutes.
More cases in the quadrant bring more stories and accounts from people who have had COVID-19.
Jayanta Chowdhury contracted COVID-19 along with his family at a Christian prayer meeting in March that turned into a “superspreader” event, leading to at least 34 positive cases, all stemming from one overseas pastor from Singapore.
Chowdhury spent nearly 50 days in hospital, 25 of them in a coma on a ventilator. Now he’s hoping his story can help others do the right things.
“Many people don’t believe COVID is going to hurt them. They just think it’s like a cough and a cold,” said Chowdhury.
“What is lacking in the northeast is people are not aware of the fact of how serious this is and how it will affect your life. They are not serious about it. They just think, ‘I don’t know anyone who is COVID-positive, so it won’t happen to me.'”
Chowdhury said he sees many people from the South Asian community not wearing masks in public or wearing them incorrectly. He’s not alone, although some also point out that people make the same mistakes all over the city.
Others regularly complain on social media about seeing the same thing in local stores and restaurants, along with a lack of proper physical distancing, evident in many photos posted online of gatherings and small events with people stood shoulder to shoulder, some wearing masks and others often not wearing one or wearing one incorrectly.
“I went to a McDonald’s in the northeast the other day. There were four men standing there chatting, no masks,” Chowdhury said. “They wear their masks under their chin. But what about the people they are putting at risk?
“Who’s going to take care of them? In my case, my whole family was positive. Let’s say the dad and mom dies, we don’t have relatives to look after our kids. They don’t understand the height and depth of the issue.”
Chowdhury said for more than a week he felt fine with no symptoms. He went to church, shopping malls and grocery stores, completely unaware he had contracted the virus.
It wasn’t until the ninth day that serious symptoms quickly started appearing and four of his group were hospitalized. One of the group died.
“I walked into Peter Lougheed hospital and passed out. When I woke up I thought it was the same day. It had been 25 days and I had been on a ventilator,” Chowdhury said.
Chowdhury said he has good days and bad days as he continues to recover. He is back at work, but every day is an unknown.
“It hurts when I see the community going to a grocery store, still picking up produce, sniffing it and putting it back. People could be carrying COVID home,” he said. “Some people don’t care about the community, they only about themselves and what they believe.”
Seeking help and protection
The community is increasingly looking to the provincial government for help and protection. Like everywhere else in the city, the majority of residents stick to the rules, but cases in the northeast continue to rise.
Last week, Premier Jason Kenney appeared on the popular northeast ethnic radio station RED FM, interviewed by host Rishi Nagar.
Kenney acknowledged the problem with COVID-19 in the northeast, referencing big family gatherings as a particular concern. He spent time outlining news rules and guidelines, including enforcement.
“Our research is clear that by far the single largest source of COVID-19 is private social functions and at-home gatherings,” said Kenney, adding it wasn’t about “pointing fingers.”
Kenney also commented on Alberta’s continued snubbing of the federal contact tracing app.
“Their app is not a contact tracing app,” he told listeners. “All it does is to indicate if maybe you were in the vicinity of somebody with COVID at some point in the past two weeks with no additional information.”
Irfan Sabir, the NDP’s lone MLA in the northeast representing the riding of Calgary-McCall, said the real problem in the northeast is the province’s contact tracing system — which he said is completely overwhelmed and no longer functioning.
“We have a government that doesn’t know where 85 per cent of cases are coming from. We are left to rely on our observations and speculate,” Sabir said. “Government is failing by not investing in contact tracing and not sharing recommendations from Dr. Hinshaw, not listening to Dr. Hinshaw.”
“They need to step up and take this seriously. Put in place evidence-based, data-based measures. It’s long past due.”
Sabir said northeast residents were already feeling abandoned after a huge hailstorm devastated multiple communities in the summer, leaving thousands of homes with shredded siding, damaged roofs and broken windows — many of which are still unrepaired heading into winter with no meaningful financial help from the province, despite pleas from residents.
“The government needs to step up and take this outbreak seriously and do everything they can to contain this spread,” he said.
Rajan Sawhney, Alberta’s minister of community and social services and UCP MLA for Calgary-Northeast, said her government has provided some funding for community organizations to help combat the spread of COVID-19 by raising awareness of the risks among newcomer communities and seniors’ groups.
She addressed her constituents in Punjabi via a Facebook video over the weekend.
“Clearly, we have to do more and it’s going to be a multi-level government approach to this, to spread as much awareness as we can about the new measures introduced by the premier,” Sawhney said.
“It’s important that we break those measures down step by step in different languages, and work with our community partners and faith-based institutions.”
Sawnhey said her main concern is northeast communities facing stigma and shaming as case numbers continue to climb.
“There shouldn’t be any finger pointing, blaming, stereotyping or shaming, or thinking that somehow residents in northeast Calgary are not as concerned about their health or about following these measures,” said Sawnhey.
“It’s just a different dynamic, and a different way people live.”