Affordable Housing, Covid-19, Healthy Homes, Mental health, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

German city supports tiny shelters while T.O. takes legal action against them

The City of Ulm has embraced an innovation created by its residents: sleep pods for the homeless.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/55778733

Meanwhile in T.O. a similar project “Toronto Tiny Shelters” is facing legal action from the City.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ont-homeless-encampments-1.5920822

In both Ulm and T.O. these projects originated thanks to very creative people who have a passion to assist others. The key difference is that the City of Ulm supported this project while our Mayor and Council not only did not support this visionary solution, they believe that taking to court someone who has made a positive difference in people’s lives during this pandemic is a good idea.

If you do not believe that, ask yourselves which Councillor right now is tweeting their support for Khaleel Seivwright the brilliant person behind this wonderful design? Also, which Councillor is going on record stating that this legal action should stop and instead the City should collaborate with the Toronto Tiny Shelters project? No one is and that is very disappointing.

The argument that Tiny Shelters are unsafe because they are made of wood is weak, since they are equipped with flame resistant materials, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Also, many homes in T.O. are made of wood. And Ulm’s sleep pods are also made of wood.  Furthermore, the contention that Toronto Tiny Shelters is not following requirements is just as feeble. Governments can always make exemptions to bylaws and regulations when it is in the interest of the public, such as providing emergency shelter for the homeless during a pandemic. To those that argue that Tiny Shelters are not the answer to the complicated problem of homelessness take note that there is no one answer to this issue and Tiny Shelters as an emergency measure can save lives. The actual problem is we do not have leaders in Council who accept that often the best solutions to our problems come from members of the public, like Khaleel Seivwright.

To manage a crisis such as a pandemic both leadership and vision are required. By not supporting Toronto Tiny Shelters this Council has shown a lack of both. However, to end on a positive note Khaleel Seivwright and his team deserve our support. Please visit their website, thank you, and stay safe.

https://www.torontotinyshelter.org/

Ask Mayor Tory and your Councillor to support Toronto Tiny Shelters

Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

Blaming international travelers

Not every Canadian who gets on a plane is like Rod Phillips, the minister who went on a Caribbean vacation to only find himself upon his return like Luca Brasi in The Godfather: “swimming with the fishes”. The reality is that few countries are currently allowing international travelers into their borders. Several countries around the globe are only allowing their citizens to return or visit family. Consequently, airports around the world look like ghost towns, flights are rescheduled or cancelled daily. Pearson airport has never looked lonelier.

Some countries were starting to reopen their borders when suddenly the “it’s mutated” scene from the 2011 film Contagion became reality, and new more contagious strains of Covid started appearing around the globe. The new strains will likely put a stop to these reopening plans.

Yet, Premier Ford created a fictional enemy “the irresponsible partying international traveler” that is bringing new Covid strains to Canada. Several airlines already required all passengers to provide negative Covid test results before boarding, even before Minister Garneau announced requirements to provide negative tests. And several countries either test and or quarantine passengers upon arrival. And unlike Canada, they send people to quarantine facilities for three weeks with a tracking wristband, not their homes for two weeks with the ArriveCAN app. And now with the new strains, there probably will be more stringent testing requirements and longer quarantine periods for travelers worldwide. It seems that one of the only “partying international travelers” was his former Finance Minister.

While it makes sense to test passengers upon arrival and perhaps even consider longer quarantine periods for travelers, let’s not lose sight of the fact, that the main problem we have in Ontario is still local transmission. Shutting down Pearson will not address the root cause. Pearson is a ghost town these days anyway.

Hardly anyone is flying, so why blame international travelers?

Covid Alert, Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Toronto

Moving from aspirational to effective contact tracing

How many times have we heard the tune “Shoppers Drug Mart employee test positive for Covid-19 in the Junction”? What are we supposed to do with this information other than sharing it on Facebook hoping your friends who shop at that location are notified. But even if they are informed questions are raised. Which employee tested positive? Because if it was an employee solely moving boxes in storage the clients may not have much to worry about, but if it was someone working as cashier many clients would have been exposed. In summary, the problem with this scenario is that it is aspirational contact tracing. And it fails to answer a key question: how did that employee contract the virus?

https://dailyhive.com/toronto/shoppers-drug-mart-covid-19-december-18

Ideally, everyone who was in the building between the hours the employee worked should be notified of potential exposure. The Covid Alert app could help, but it would require that the employee who tested positive and those exposed have the app running on their smartphones. And since its adoption is voluntary and requires a newer smartphone not everyone has it. Hence this remarkable app should be seen as one of many ways to combat the pandemic and not a silver bullet.

As a Canadian who grew up abroad and has backpacked around our beautiful globe, I tend to ask myself: what else are other countries doing to solve this problem, which by now has affected every corner of the earth. 

Quick Response (QR) codes are effectively being used for contact tracing by businesses in Asia, Europe, and Oceania:

https://esnetwork.ca/briefings/qr-codes-as-an-approach-to-contact-tracing-for-covid-19/

On the local scene, a Canadian company has developed a QR code contact tracing solution to help businesses:

Based on the above study, QR code contact tracing solutions work best when managed by service providers for a specific transaction, for example, a movie night. So when you enter the theatre you would present your tickets and scan a QR code with your smartphone. Cineplex will not get your contact details, all they will see is a randomly generated identification code e.g. UserElVez has entered the theatre. Employees would scan the QR code when their shift begins. So, If Employee007 who later tests positive was working when UserElVez was in the theatre UserElVez would be automatically and confidentially notified of potential exposure. Naturally, all clients and employees who were in the theatre at the same time as Employee007 would also be notified. Since the movie is 2 hours long the system would automatically know when UserElVez left the building. 

Finding out how Employee007 contracted Covid might be best left to contact tracing professionals working for local public health units. However, notifying who may have been exposed by Employee007 at work to Covid can be automatically done by QR code systems, thus allowing contact tracers who are already overworked to focus on other critical matters.

QR code contact tracing is far superior to pen and paper which restaurants in T.O. were using in the summer for contact tracing since pen and paper can easily lead to privacy breaches. It is positive to see many local businesses adopt QR code solutions, but to be truly effective widespread adoption is needed. Here is a situation where local governments can take the lead and encourage the use of QR code contact tracing.

QR code contact tracing is more effective and secure than pen and pencil.
Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

Ontario needs paid pandemic leave

More than 7,600 workers in Ontario have contracted Covid in their workplace.

Reference: https://www.toronto.com/news-story/10293646-thousands-of-workers-got-covid-19-on-the-job-but-the-ministry-of-labour-has-fined-just-one-employer/

These numbers build a strong case that current sick leave policies are woefully inadequate especially during a pandemic. Certainly, having only 3 unpaid job-protected sick days (the Ontario minimum) is not sufficient in times of Covid, because behavioural psychology demonstrates that we are good at fooling ourselves into thinking that potential Covid symptoms might be just the start of a cold if the alternative is no pay or worse job loss. There is always pressure to work while sick.

Reference: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20161013-the-psychology-behind-the-subtle-pressure-to-work-when-sick

On the positive side, Ontario has effective parental leave policies that ensure employees are paid and their jobs are protected. Parental leave works well because the government covers the cost through employment insurance. A new paid pandemic leave programme could be modelled after parental leave policies. If we have parental leave why not pandemic leave?

Reference: https://www.ontario.ca/document/your-guide-employment-standards-act-0/pregnancy-and-parental-leave

To effectively reduce contagion in the workplace Ontario should implement a pandemic leave program that pays employees and protects their jobs when:

  1. They test positive for Covid,
  2. They are exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid or they have Covid symptoms and they are in isolation awaiting test results, or
  3. They need to stay home to take care of their children during school closures due to the pandemic.

Ontario needs paid pandemic leave, anything less, and sick employees will go to work, and contagion will continue. Some will argue that paid pandemic leave will be costly. My answer is that nobody argued that D-day was costly or that liberating Holland would burden us Canadians with debt. Despite all that is wrong we should remain hopeful that just like our foreparents overcame great obstacles, we will too.

Harbourfront, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Toronto

Close schools to end the second wave

In T.O. 70% of Covid cases cannot be traced. Ultimately, it is our governments who will be held accountable for this disastrous situation. 

Reference: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-tam-calls-for-stricter-covid-19-lockdown-measures-in-hard-hit/

Without adequate testing, tracing, and hospitals in crisis we are left with no alternative but stronger restrictions. However, before pondering what additional restrictions must be implemented, we have to step back and ask ourselves, why didn’t the current restrictions mitigate the second wave?

This is a complicated question to answer since we do not have all the data on how contagion spreads in Toronto. Nonetheless, we do know that several businesses have either:

  • Potentially broken the law by remaining open, or
  • Have bent the law by finding creative ways to brand themselves as essential.

Reference: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-cities-crack-down-on-businesses-breaking-covid-rules-in-ontario/

The law of unintended consequences teaches us that if we close all stores, except those that sell food, hardware, and PPE, eventually every store in T.O. will be selling bananas, hammers, and face masks in an effort to stay in business. So there must be more effective ways to encourage people to stay home than the 50 shades of grey “lockdown”.

Voluntary measures, such as encouraging people to work from home were not particularly effective in the first wave. Mandatory restrictions did not stop a second wave. But what did work well were the school closures that helped put an end to the first wave. Not only because having people spend significant time indoors in classrooms presents a Covid outbreak risk, but because closing schools also force parents to stay home. The moment children don’t go to school, parents are forced to have a conversation with their employers to either work from home or go on leave to take care of them, especially if they have younger children. I realize that some unethical employers will simply lay-off their workers, but frankly, maybe these employers should not be receiving government assistance and the focus of governments should be to bail out our workers.

Closing schools may be the most effective way to encourage people to stay home. So, close schools to make parents stay home, keep our children and educators safe, and potentially put an end to this deadly second wave. Let’s buy some time and save lives now that vaccines are on their way.

Thank you, to all essential workers
Covid-19, Ontario, Parkdale - High Park, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

Close big-box stores

The frustration of businesses that had to close in-store shopping when Toronto went into the “Grey-lockdown zone”, while their competitor big box stores remained open, is completely understandable. Premier Ford rationalized that it would be difficult for these big stores to close their toy departments and only sell groceries. While I completely disagree with the Premier (room dividers were invented centuries ago) and agree with businesses that were forced to close that there is an unfairness to these measures, the key problem is that we still haven’t flattened the curve.

Let’s face reality, at the beginning of the pandemic we had a contact tracing system in Ontario that relied on fax machines and manual entry. The new system is better, but we are way behind Korea and Taiwan who have taken contact tracing to a state of the art. This means until a significant amount of our population has been vaccinated our best remedy is asking businesses to close their doors to save lives and protect public health.

Recently, Canadian Appliance Source (CAS) wanted to remain open to customers shopping at their stores, but lost a decision, in part because the judge correctly noted that they are not a hardware store and therefore not exempt from the lockdown. Below is an insightful statement from this case:

Cdn Appliance made forceful arguments that as an appliance supplier, it is an essential service business; visualize: who’s to say that during a pandemic that a washing machine that cleans clothes or a refrigerator that preserves food is less essential than a hammer? https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2020/2020onsc7665/2020onsc7665.html

Last spring, during the height of the first wave our washer-dryer unit broke down and the repair person said it was cheaper to buy a new one. I called CAS and fortunately was able to order a new unit and have it installed in just a couple of days. CAS is right in saying that an appliance is no less essential than hardware. Having a working washer-dryer unit means we can stay home, not go out to the laundromat, and thus avoid potential exposure to the virus. It is not ideal to buy online or over the phone. Certainly, I would have liked to have seen the unit in person first, but these certainly aren’t ideal times. The court case exposed the contradictions in the recent “lockdown”. However, since hammers and washing machines can both be bought over the phone or online, shouldn’t hardware stores close their doors too?

This second wave is worse than the first one. So we have to ask ourselves if a business can sell their products and services over the phone or online then maybe that business must be closed to in-store shopping during this second surge. The big-box stores have the IT infrastructure to sell by phone and online. They also have the means to afford a temporary closure of their stores. Big box stores must close their doors too.

If a refrigerator that preserves food is just as essential as duct tape, why are hardware stores open and appliance stores closed?
Affordable Housing, Covid-19, Parkdale - High Park, Toronto

Ban foreign real estate investment and short-term rentals

Parkdale-High Park

First, let me begin by saying I agree with councillor Joe Cressy’s recent statement, “Housing should be used for just that: housing.” Therefore it follows that housing should not be only used for hoteling nor should it be solely used for investment. Clearly, the core issue is that housing for several years has become unaffordable for a multitude of Toronto residents. The causes of this phenomenon are complicated, but foreign investment, low interest rates, and short-term rentals are key factors. Consequently, I doubt that Toronto’s well-intentioned new vacant home tax will do much to address the problem of affordability. For more information please read: https://www.680news.com/2020/12/16/toronto-vacant-home-tax-vote-in-favour-city-council/

Canadian real estate law has so many loopholes that for all practical purposes foreign investment in real estate is allowed. Note that many countries do not allow foreign ownership of real estate properties, such as New Zealand. Other countries allow foreign ownership of condominium units, but not land, such as the Phillippines. Not surprisingly, in the Phillippines often it is more affordable for locals to buy land as opposed to a small condo, since in the condo market locals have to compete with foreign buyers. The problem that foreign investment in real estate creates is that it often leaves locals out of their own market. For more information please read: https://financialpost.com/personal-finance/mortgages-real-estate/foreigners-are-banned-from-buying-property-in-new-zealand-canada-should-do-the-same

However, banning foreign investment into real estate might not be enough. For instance, despite banning foreign ownership in real estate, New Zealand still has a housing affordability problem in part due to low-interest rates. Toronto is in a similar boat, because as long as we have low-interest rates it will be more attractive for investors to invest in housing as opposed to other markets. And it is far from certain that a vacant home tax will help when investors can borrow a million dollars for less than 2.5% interest in a market that substantially increases in value year after year. They will make more money flipping homes than renting them. While raising interest rates might discourage house flipping and increase the number of rental units, it likely would adversely affect homeowners already struggling to pay their mortgages. For more information please read: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-02/kiwi-housing-frenzy-exposes-perils-of-ultra-low-interest-rates

Short-term rentals such as Airbnb raise rental prices. Ontario’s temporary ban on short-term rentals during the pandemic resulted in record drops in rental prices. While it is a seemingly reasonable argument that we should be able to rent out our homes even for a short-term there is a stronger argument that we cannot run a hotelling business unless we are in fact a hotel. And the common good, in this case, lower rental prices takes precedence over hotelling businesses. For more information please read: https://www.blogto.com/city/2020/12/toronto-enforcing-new-rules-airbnbs/

Toronto has a housing crisis. There are people living in parks, streets, and tents. We have both the moral authority and an ethical responsibilty to take action. Collaboration from all levels of government is needed to tackle this complicated problem. There isn’t a magic bullet solution to this crisis. However, a good start would be a ban on short-term rentals, and an end to foreign investment into real estate. A permanent ban on short-term rentals can be done literally tomorrow. While all the loopholes that still allow foreign investment in Canadian real estate must be closed.

Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

Tolerate anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers?

Taxicab in Makati


Sometimes it seems like we all have that neighbour that despite all evidence showing face masks reduce contagion refuses to wear a mask in indoor public spaces citing individual rights, but conveniently ignoring everyone else’s right to live in a secure and safe community. 

Canadian case law is clear: governments are allowed to place reasonable limits on individual rights to protect public health. Furthermore, it is abundantly clear that current restrictions, such as the mandatory wearing of face masks are only temporary measures in consequence of a pandemic. Thus the argument that governments in Canada are trampling over individual rights is a weak one.

This argument becomes even weaker when we compare ourselves to other countries, which require both face masks and face shields to be worn as double protection in public places. In the Philippines, for example, if you don’t wear a face mask together with a face shield you will not get a taxi, it’s that simple. Temperature checks are mandatory before entering a restaurant or shopping mall in its capital Manila. Furthermore, all international travellers must undergo a Covid test at the airport upon arrival to the Philippines. While travellers to Taiwan are required to take a test before departure. By comparison to these two countries, Canadian health measures are both lenient and very reasonable.

Yet some anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are over-dramatically insisting that public health measures in Canada are authoritarian. As someone who grew up in the Dominican Republic during Balaguer’s civilian-authoritarianism before moving to Toronto, I sincerely doubt they understand what authoritarian measures look like. Seriously, who has been locked up in Canada for not wearing a face mask? Someone did get arrested for obstruction of justice only after receiving repeated warnings and blatantly ignoring public health measures while risking the safety of his customers and employees. The fact that this person didn’t even have a business licence before the pandemic began demonstrates that he is unwilling to follow even the most minimum requirements on a good day. Fortunately, he doesn’t represent the vast majority of small business owners who care about the well being of their clients and workers.

The irony is that both the anti-mask and anti-vaxx movements claim the mantle of freedom, yet by practicing disinformation and engaging in hateful conspiracy theories they have proven to be very intolerant. Caving to their demands will only prolong this pandemic and harm the common good. Thus we should heed Karl Popper’s advice on the limits of a tolerant society and under these special circumstances claim the right to not tolerate these two groups, when they break the law in a manner that compromises public safety. Furthermore, while we respect everyone’s freedom of expression rights; nonetheless, reasonable temporary face mask requirements, which are supported by scientific research, should not be a time-consuming debate in the middle of a pandemic that has cost lives.

On the other hand, we should have a healthy debate on how far do we as a society want to go with requiring proof of immunization, now that vaccines will be available soon. Certainly, mandatory vaccinations are out of the question in Canada thanks to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But just like I have to wear prescription eyeglasses to drive a car, shortly I may have to show proof that I have received a vaccine before being allowed to buy tickets to the next Rodriguez concert. In general terms, we have a right to a safe workplace and Covid is a hazard. So, how far should we go with requiring proof of vaccination to ensure workplace safety? Certainly, there might be workers who are unable to receive a vaccine due to valid health reasons e.g. an allergy. But what if a worker refuses vaccination under religious grounds? The answers might be case by case. Regardless, this is an important debate to have right now.

Covid-19, Ontario, Parkdale - High Park, Public health, Reduce HST, Toronto

Reduce HST to help small businesses

We live in a society that did not blink once when it came to bail out banks and automotive companies, even when they dug themselves in a hole. However, when small businesses face economic uncertainty in a pandemic, which was no fault of their own, we are slow to respond with help. Ironic, when we consider that 70% of our workforce is employed by small businesses.

One problem we Canadians often run into is our desire to compare ourselves to the US, which by most accounts is a low bar when it comes to fighting Covid. Likewise, as Ontarians, we often like to compare ourselves to Quebec, another low bar in this struggle. Instead, we should look at the rest of the world, which is turning to VAT (their equivalent to Ontario’s HST) cuts to counter the economic downturn caused by Covid.

There is a strong case that the right amount of HST reductions may help the restaurant and hospitality sectors. Germany provides an exemplary economic plan which includes VAT reductions. Reducing the VAT (our HST) is “a simple and direct way to encourage individuals to start consuming again, quickly” states economist Pascal de Lima. Therefore, Canada and Ontario should follow Germany’s lead and include GST/HST/PST reductions as part of our economic recovery plan.

To end on a positive note, one of the best things about living in Parkdale-High Park is all the wonderful restaurants and local businesses we have in our neighbourhood. For example, I’m lucky to live just steps away from Aztec’s Mine, which makes delicious authentic Mexican cuisine. Like many small businesses they are family-owned and operated. And I am certain they and our local businesses could use your clientele during these trying times.

Aztec’s Mine – authentic Mexican cusine on 1986 Bloor St W, just in front of High Park