Changing COVID-19 restrictions raises questions of which communities can celebrate major holidays

Almost 10 months into the pandemic and nearly every major holiday has been impacted. From religious to secular, people across Ontario have adapted yet another part of their lives to celebrate and enjoy the company of loved ones from a distance.

Not every holiday, particularly of the religious sort, has been treated equally by governments and politicians. The past few months have involved numerous religious and cultural holidays and celebrations. However, these moments of joy and peace have been overshadowed by the constantly rising cases of COVID-19 in Ontario.

In a non-exhaustive list, people across Ontario have celebrated Diwali, Hanukkah, Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day, Christmas and Gregorian New Year over the past few months. There are still many religious observances, birthdays and celebrations to look forward to. However, as cases continue to rise it will be challenging to predict how the festivities will unfold, especially with the disparity in how different holidays have been celebrated throughout the pandemic.

April 2020, one month after lockdown began in Ontario, involved several major religious observances, including Passover, Easter and the beginning of Ramadan. While Ontario was still in lockdown, Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared the Easter Bunny an essential service, akin to medical care, grocery workers and firefighters.

“So kids, the Easter Bunny is becoming an essential service and we’ll make sure they have the chocolates ready for Easter,” said Ford.

“So kids, the Easter Bunny is becoming an essential service and we’ll make sure they have the chocolates ready for Easter,” said Ford.

Both Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief medical officer of health, and Ford extended the courtesy to Santa Claus in December. Santa Claus was declared an essential worker to ensure that children would still receive their customary Christmas gifts.

In a message from Santa himself, Santa assured observers that he had been self-isolating and following other public health measures. 

While these sentiments are meant to be a moment of joy, especially for children facing significant challenges with the pandemic, such moments of joy seemed to be reserved for Christian and religiously-unaffiliated children.

Though holidays like Ramadan and Yom Kippur have not been commercialized in Canada, to the extent that there are fictionalized treat deliverers for children, the messaging from many, including political leaders, around non-Christian celebrations has been called racist and white Christian supremacist.

 

In an opinion article published in the Toronto Star in November, three contributors demonstrated how religious celebrations are not to blame for rising COVID-19 cases, particularly in Brampton, Ontario. “It’s not Diwali, it’s precarious employment and less healthcare resources,” read the article title.

The three authors of the article are Sabina Vohra-Miller, Amanpreet (Preet) Brar and Ananya Tina Banerjee, who all work in the healthcare sector. They wrote about how racist stereotypes have overshadowed the inequalities and inequities faced by South Asian communities in Ontario and Canada at large.

“It’s not Diwali, it’s precarious employment and less healthcare resources.”

Many South Asians, especially in communities like Brampton, are forced into precarious employment, financial differences and inequalities in access to healthcare. Racialized peoples are overrepresented in precarious employment across Ontario.

Racialized peoples and communities, immigrants and refugees, low wage workers and precarious employees are all at greater risk of being infected by COVID-19. The expert contributors noted how these social inequities, particularly systemic racism, negatively impact health outcomes, including exposure to COVID-19.

Racialized communities, including South Asian communities, have been vilified for COVID-19 outbreaks.

“[We are] staring down the barrel of another lockdown,” said Ford in mid-November.

Ford noted this prior to Diwali, while Peel Region mayors told their communities that enforcement officials would be patrolling the streets to enforce restricted celebrations.

In an interview with CP24, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie encouraged residents to be cautious. “Remain vigilant now to avoid jeopardizing the upcoming winter holidays,” said Crombie. 

“Remain vigilant now to avoid jeopardizing the upcoming winter holidays,” said Crombie. 

At least three Diwali gatherings were disrupted by police and bylaw officers in Brampton. At the time, Peel Region was in the red zone that allowed for up to 100 people outdoors for religious services. Police said that fines were issued to Gurdwara Nanaskar for a gathering; however, it is unclear whether the outdoor celebration exceeded the limit of 100 people.

In an article published on Dec. 20 by CP24, sources with knowledge of the province’s public health decisions said that all of Ontario would enter lockdown at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 24. Several medical experts, including the Ontario Health Association and Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, were cited in the article. The Ontario Health Association recommended a four-week lockdown across Ontario.

In an interview with CP24, Sharkawy was worried about the impact of a delay in lockdown measures.

“I’m really worried these people will use these four days . . . to forge a mad scramble towards malls and retailers to try and get those last minute Christmas gifts, or perhaps to gather in social occasions with others before we’re all locked down,” said Sharkawy.

A lockdown would further restrict social gatherings, which were a high concern for many health experts with Christmas approaching. 

As of Dec. 21, 21 public health units in Ontario were in green, yellow or orange zones. These zones allowed for indoor gatherings of up to 10 people, restaurants and bars to operate at reduced capacity, including over Christmas.

Yet, Ontario did not announce a lockdown as of Dec. 24. Instead, Ford announced on Dec. 21 that Ontario would enter lockdown after Christmas. The lockdown and tighter restrictions were implemented as of Dec. 26.

“The province announced new restrictions starting on Boxing Day — after people would have already done their last-minute shopping and gathered for the holidays,” wrote Toronto Star Health Reporter Jennifer Yang.

“[The after-Christmas lockdown] gave people implicit permission to proceed with their holiday plans,” said Dr. Lanard.

Yang interviewed Jody Lanard, a risk communications expert, about the lockdown. “[The after-Christmas lockdown] gave people implicit permission to proceed with their holiday plans,” said Dr. Lanard.

After Christmas, there has been a significant shift in COVID-19 cases across Ontario. Public health units previously in green, yellow and orange zones have seen infection rates doubling since Christmas. 

As of Nov. 29, Lambton Public Health Unit had 14 active cases and an infection rate of 12.2 cases per 100,000 people. Lambton moved from the green to yellow zone the following day, but remained in the yellow until the Dec. 26 lockdown. In the same week, City of Hamilton Public Health Services had 473 active cases and an infection rate of 80.7 cases per 100,000 people. Hamilton was locked down as of Dec. 21.

Now, as of Jan. 13, Lambton has 261 active cases and an infection rate of 226 cases per 100,000 people. Hamilton now has 1,111 active cases but an infection rate of 148 cases per 100,000 people.

With the significant increases of COVID-19 cases in the two weeks following Christmas and increased lockdown measures as of Jan. 14, there are questions about how Christmas celebrations were policed.

With the significant increases of COVID-19 cases in the two weeks following Christmas and increased lockdown measures as of Jan. 14, there are questions about how Christmas celebrations were policed. The vast increases in cases and loose restrictions appear to indicate that families still gathered and traveled for Christmas, such as Ontario MPP Randy Hillier. 

Yet, there appear to be few, if any, news stories on how these gatherings were policed or if any were shutdown. Global News reported that the Ontario Provincial Police are aware of Hillier’s gathering but it is unclear if charges will be laid or fines levied. Hillier also remains as an independent MPP.

Image courtesy of Graphic by Esra Rakab

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