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After 26 years working at a factory, he caught COVID-19 and died. Inside one Brampton family’s story of the pandemic’s devastating — and preventable — toll

Posted: May 2, 2021

(May 1, 2021)

By: Sara Mojtehedzadeh, New Hamburg Independent (Metroland Media Group)

Kanaiya Gandhi was the kind of dad who shared everything, the kind who spent rarely on himself so his daughters could take swimming lessons. A run for his Tim Hortons coffee typically ended with doughnuts for the whole family; he loved to ply his wife and kids with his signature homemade pizza.

But one item in his Brampton home was off limits to everyone except Gandhi. It was a water bottle emblazoned with the name Decoustics — the factory where he worked for 26 years.

Gandhi was fiercely proud of his job making acoustic panels. It was also how he caught the virus that would kill him.

As he began displaying worrying symptoms in December, Gandhi’s 23-year-old daughter Radhika says she struggled to elicit information about a workplace outbreak. She desperately sought to book COVID-19 tests, only to wait days for the next appointment. She watched her dad be shuttled from an overloaded Brampton hospital — where medical staff spoke his native Gujarati — to one an hour away from home.

On Feb. 4, Radhika watched her father die.

It came as Ontario teetered on the precipice of a devastating third wave, one scientists warned would once again put essential workers at greatest risk. With almost 22,000 known cases of workers who got sick on the job — including 46 fatalities — Ontario still does not have permanent paid sick days. Its lockdown excludes an estimated 2 million essential workers in the GTA; many are still struggling to be vaccinated.

To Radhika, her father’s story represents the human cost of inaction.

“These factory workers are the backbone of our society,” she says. “I feel like they should have been recognized long before this.”

Like so many others, Gandhi landed in Canada with big ambitions. Originally from India, he arrived in Saskatchewan in 1984 as an eager 21-year-old studying electronics engineering. But he struggled to find a job in the field.

Since retraining was costly, he moved to Etobicoke’s Rexdale neighbourhood hoping for more career options. He landed a seasonal position at Canada Post. Then, he heard a Woodbridge-based factory called Decoustics was hiring.

It was a rare opportunity: a full-time, permanent and unionized job as a metalizer, assembling aluminum edges for sound-absorbing panels. Recently married, Gandhi was thrilled — and able to save for a family home in Brampton. Radhika remembers him returning from work waving sheets of paper, excitedly showing her and her sister the designs he was working on.

“My dad loved his job,” she says. “He would spend hours explaining it to us.”

In addition to his water bottle, Gandhi prized his company-branded jacket, a black fleece number he wore “all the time,” Radhika says.

But things at work were not always smooth. As a union steward, Gandhi would sometimes draft in his daughters to help him write grievances, hoping their fluency in English would improve his chances of success. Radhika remembers hearing about a demanding pace of work, and the strict monitoring of bathroom breaks.

Still, Gandhi’s relationship with the factory ran deep. In the three years preceding the pandemic, Radhika remembers her dad being approached by a rival company with a job offer at least twice.

“Each time my dad turned them down,” she says. “Because of his loyalty to Decoustics.”

As far as Radhika knows, Decoustics took many precautions that other employers didn’t. At home, she still has unwrapped KN95 masks her dad would wear on the job, a higher level of protection than the blue surgical masks common in many workplaces. Most importantly, the workers’ collective agreement afforded them two paid sick days.

In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for Decoustics said it increased its paid sick leave to 10 days in March 2020 to be used in case of an illness or to self-quarantine. The company said it also staggered shift times, increased social distancing, limited break room occupancy, enhanced safety training, ramped up cleaning, and distributed free gloves and masks to workers who took public transit. It said, to date, workers have not filed any COVID-related grievances.

“From the beginning of this unprecedented global health crisis, nothing has been more important to Decoustics than protecting and maintaining the health of our colleagues,” the statement reads. “In Woodbridge and at our sites around the world, we have implemented all required public health recommendations to ensure the safety of our workplace, and put in place additional safety measures as needed.”

While experts were calling for 14 provincially mandated paid sick days to limit outbreaks, Radhika knew her dad was at least more fortunate than most. But she also wrestled with another question: did a factory making acoustic panels need to be open?

“Decoustics manufactures custom architectural products that are required in essential places around the world such as schools, hospitals and other buildings” that otherwise “would not be able to pass their final inspections,” the company said in a statement.

As a pandemic precaution, Gandhi stopped carpooling with fellow Peel residents and drove to work alone. But Radhika worried about her dad’s break and the locker rooms — smaller areas where ventilation may be poor or masking sporadic.

“Infection does not just happen on the production line,” she says.

By early December, there were growing rumblings about the need for another provincial lockdown — one where essential workers could actually stay home. While case counts were rising everywhere, a report from Ontario Health Coalition showed workplace outbreaks, especially in industrial settings, were rapidly outpacing the spread of the virus in the general public.

On Dec. 23, Gandhi punched out of his last day of work before the plant’s scheduled holiday shutdown, returning to the Peel home he shared with his wife and two daughters.

Less than 72 hours later, his began experiencing COVID symptoms.

It took several days to find a test appointment, Radhika says. Meanwhile, her dad’s condition worsened: he lost his appetite, and was suffering from headaches and congestion. Radhika’s mom, also a factory worker, moved to a different bedroom to try to isolate.

By Jan. 3, Gandhi still hadn’t received test results. That morning, at around 6 a.m., Radhika awoke to her dad croaking for help. He wanted to get up so he could cough the phlegm off his chest. But Gandhi couldn’t move.

“Mom,” Radhika remembers saying. “We need to call 911 now.”

Gandhi was rushed to Brampton Civic Hospital. His oxygen levels were dangerously low, and staff wanted to put him on a ventilator right away. Gandhi pleaded against it.

“He didn’t want to be there in the first place because he was terrified of being away from his family,” says Radhika. “His family was everything. His home was everything.”

The care he received at Brampton Civic was phenomenal, Radhika says. As ventilation became unavoidable, his doctor was able to comfort him in Gujarati as he was intubated. Nurses arranged daily hour-long chats via iPad, a source of solace for Gandhi’s wife and daughters.

But a few days later, the family was told Gandhi had to move. He was one of the more stable patients in the intensive care unit; as the virus ravaged Peel, the demand for beds was becoming unmanageable.

The decision was devastating for Radhika. The new hospital, Southlake Regional Health Care Centre, was an hour away from home. Staff, she says, seemed less willing or able to accommodate iPad check-ins, and in one painful encounter, brushed off her questions about whether a lung transplant was a possible treatment for her otherwise healthy father.

The 23-year-old went to the hospital herself to plead in person. She says she eventually convinced a doctor to at least explore it.

In a statement, Southlake said it couldn’t comment on individual patients, but that it makes “every effort to keep families and caregivers involved and informed.” Reflecting on her own experience, Radhika says she understands why the family of Emily Viegas, the 13-year-old Brampton girl who died of COVID-19 in her home April 22, was terrified of hospitalizing their daughter — knowing it could mean separation.

“For marginalized populations, a lot of times families really have to advocate for a doctor to listen to them. How can you advocate when someone is that far away?” says Radhika.

“There’s so many barriers to being treated equally in the system.”

Healthy lungs are like sponges, squishy and flexible. Near the end, says Radikha, her father’s were rock hard.

But as his health declined, his daughter was still struggling to obtain basic information about how he got sick in the first place. Radhika says Gandhi’s manager called to say a few other workers had tested positive, and that she would be contacted by some kind of government official.

“To be honest, I thought the company would have explained this to me. I’m not that well-versed in labour issues because I’m a student, and it’s not my area of expertise,” she says. When the workers’ compensation board called her, she had “no idea what it was about.”

But other than the compensation board, which approved the family’s work-related COVID-claim, Radhika says she received no official communication about the outbreak.

In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for York Region, where Decoustics is located, confirmed the health unit declared a workplace outbreak on Jan. 5. About a week later, the Ministry of Labour visited Decoustics, which had voluntarily extended its shutdown. According to the field visit report, Decoustics said all employees “were called and spoken with directly” about the 12 positive cases identified.

The company employs 85 people full-time. Of those, 40 are the metalizers, packers, crate builders, and other shop floor operators unionized with Teamsters Local 938. The union does not represent the company’s sales and clerical teams; office staff worked from home during the pandemic, according to the ministry report.

To Radhika, that suggests a 25 per cent infection rate amongst the company’s front-line workers.

Decoustics told the Star it could not comment on which part of its workforce was impacted by the virus and said it was “impossible to know where Mr. Gandhi contracted COVID-19.”

“However we did not want to do anything to stand in the way of him or his family collecting any benefits that were available to them.”

In their inspection, the ministry official noted the physical distancing and cleaning measures taken, and said since the outbreak, Decoustics had implemented vibrating trackers for workers’ to monitor proximity. The company told the ministry it had also conducted an air quality assessment in November, but the report says the results were “not reviewed” during the field visit.

“The employer stated that there were no concerns with the results of the air quality test,” the report says.

No health and safety orders were issued. At the time of the inspection, the report says, all of the workers had recovered — except one.

“We saw that his condition was very much deteriorating,” says Radhika. “And so we made the heartbreaking decision that maybe it was time for him to go.”

Gandhi’s wife and daughters were given half an hour each to say goodbye in person. Only one of them could stay by his side until the end.

That person was Radhika.

“When I was just sitting there with him in his final few moments, the only thing I could think of was the fact that I could not bring him home,” as she had pledged to do before he was hospitalized.

“I was unable to fulfil that promise,” she says. “And I think that’s one of the most heartbreaking things.”

Gandhi was 58. He was cremated in a favourite suit, one he wore to a family member’s pre-pandemic wedding.

“I just know that if my dad was able to see that for me and my sister, he would have just been so overjoyed,” says Radhika. “I just wish we would be able to have him there for those milestones.”

As lockdown restrictions leave manufacturing untouched, she is also worried about his colleagues. Decoustics says it continues to take robust measures that go above and beyond public health guidance; it says it was saddened by Gandhi’s death and offered ongoing support to his family, including access to available employment benefits.

Last week, the company filed another notification of a COVID-related occupational illness, a Ministry of Labour spokesperson told the Star.

Despite the enormous price her family has paid, Radhika still feels lucky for some basic privileges, like the fact her studies — which include epidemiology — allowed her to understand the medical terms used in her father’s care.

“While we slipped through the cracks, there are people that are falling deeper than us,” she says.

But to Radhika, the half measures, confusion, and poor communication leading up to his death are symptomatic of a broader disregard for people like her dad. With adequate, universal sick leave and equitable access to health care, her community “wouldn’t be in as dire a situation now.”

She is keenly aware of how deep discrimination runs; as a little girl, Radhika remembers her parents telling her not to answer teachers if they asked about her parents’ line of work.

“They were worried that people would look down on us,” she says.

That, she says, is what she hopes the pandemic changes.

“Now I look back at it, I’m proud that my dad built up such a great life for us while being a factory worker,” she says. “He did his work with pride.”

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