While the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has risen to 368 in Ontario, so has the amount of support across U of T campuses and GTA communities alike.

These non-profit organizations are finding different ways to accommodate the public, especially those hit hardest by the virus: seniors, people living with disabilities, and individuals with limited mobility.

At the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), a creative writing community called UTM Scribes is lending support through creative means after their annual Slate Magazine book launch had to be canceled under the recommendations of health officials. Recent university closures in March also meant that UTM Scribes had to cancel a Poetry-Slam event commemorating International Women’s Day.

The circumstance brought an opportunity to present the book launch differently, while addressing the health crisis at the same time.

“Our team, together with the authors, editors, illustrators, and photographers, worked hard to create Slate [Magazine],” UTM Scribes told The Medium. “One of our treasurers thought it would be best to dedicate the proceeds to research on finding a vaccine for the virus. So, we are inviting payees to donate to Sunnybrook Foundation in order to support the research on COVID-19 and help the fight against the pandemic.”

When the public learned on March 12 that schools would close for three weeks to prevent the spreading of the virus, colleges, universities, businesses, and some government services did the same. Grocery stores were suddenly faced with a surge of customers picking up supplies.

Since the social distancing practices were implemented, elderly populations have begun to face difficulties in picking up essentials like food and medication. Most were also unable to wait for hours in lengthy grocery store lines.

The growing number of vulnerable individuals has increased dependency on community and non-profit organizations. CTV News reported that the impact being felt by non-profit organizations and charities is likely to remain, leaving long-term effects.

“We have definitely felt a need for more food bank items,” said Junaid Sohail, the program manager at Canada Zakat and its HalalServe food bank.

In an interview with The Medium, Sohail said food shortages were due to events like panic buying at grocery stores across the nation.

“This is especially important because inventory with our suppliers have been very low or unavailable due to all the increased demand and stockpiling that has occurred since last week,” said Sohail.  

HalalServe, a social welfare project of Canada Zakat, launched a $50,000 GoFundMe campaign on March 15 to help increase client access to food products and essential supplies.

A new Dalhousie University survey revealed that 73 per cent of Ontarians felt concerned about potential health risks when visiting a grocery store. Despite this figure, most grocery shops have still experienced extraordinary amounts of panic buying, resulting in empty shelves of necessities like food, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper.

According to the survey, 41 per cent of Canadians have purchased extra products at grocery stores as a result of the current situation. This means that more than half of the population (59 per cent) has not purchased anything since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

Sohail confirmed a spike in people requiring food bank services.

“At HalalServe, this has us really worried and we’re trying to acquire enough supplies of essential staple foods at the food bank so that we can at least continue to serve our existing clients, some of whom largely depend on our support and delivery service,” said Sohail.  

Groups across diverse industries are also providing essential goods and services to the community in different ways.

The University Health Network (UHN)’s OpenLab has created a Friendly Neighbour Hotline that provides volunteers with access to medication and food deliveries for isolated seniors.

OpenLab, an innovation hub at Toronto General Hospital, has already been researching and designing solutions for independent seniors living in Toronto community housings. Tai Huynh, OpenLab’s Creative Director, described an outpour of support from local volunteers toward the cause.

“I’m thrilled because we weren’t expecting that kind of response [from volunteers],” said Huynh in a statement to the Toronto Sun.

Since launching on March 13, OpenLab has accumulated 300 volunteers within a system where local volunteers are matched with seniors. Huynh said the hotline concept has been a success due to the “digital divide” seniors face when it comes to accessing online grocery services.  

“It’s really amazing to see the city coming together like this […] You would expect that from Torontonians in times of crisis. We’ve seen that before with generosity during the Danforth shooting on Yonge Street,” said Huynh.

Canada Zakat was also an example of a volunteer-led campaign that raised over $200k for the Toronto Van Attack that killed 10 people last April. The inspiration behind Canada Zakat’s newest food bank GoFundMe included “raising awareness that there is need here in Canada.”

“The more people know about the unfortunate situation regarding poverty in our own neighbourhoods, the better we can address it,” continued Sohail. “We need to work together to find solutions to these local problems.”

Like Canada Zakat and OpenLab, at least 35 other community groups across Canada have emerged to support those most isolated by the outbreak.

The Facebook group “CareMongering-TO” was established on March 12 by social service worker Mita Hans to address people “left behind in our society, on a daily basis and during times of crisis.”

The social media group has already amassed over 10,000 members, organizing local communities “on the grassroots level to ensure vulnerable [people] have access to food, housing, healthcare, and other necessities.”

The #TogetherAtHome viral hashtag has proven that social media has been a force in connecting people despite being physically apart. Since the first few identified COVID-19 cases, several hundred Chinese Canadians have been using the social platform WeChat to organize volunteer teams in Toronto and across Canada. The group conducts deliveries to isolated seniors, provides psychological support, and helps people travel home from the airport.

The Canadian Muslim community has also assembled a COVID-19 relief effort comprising of 35 civil society organizations. The response network seeks to assist anyone “vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus and the effects of self-isolation.” Since launching on March 16, the campaign has distributed grocery, sanitation, and hygiene kits to hundreds of seniors and families across Canada.

Some GTA businesses are also using their resources to do their part in aiding the crisis.

Spirit of York, a Toronto distillery, is producing hand sanitizer instead of drinks to donate to seniors and low-income individuals. Mama Earth Organics, a home delivery service for local and organic food, is sharing its increased profits with employees as a “state of emergency bonus.”  

SPRINT Senior Care, a non-profit community support service agency, has redirected its volunteers and staff from cancelled programs to their meals-on-wheels and safety checks programs.

“Some of these people can’t get out. They’re homebound. And we would need help to deliver those packages to them,” said Sprint Senior Care CEO Stacy Landau in a statement to The Star. “These are seniors who are impacted by the social determinants of health.”

In Ottawa, owner of Dreammind Group, Abbis Mahmoud, has been collecting food for distribution to seniors and other vulnerable residents through the initiative Operation Ramzieh. He encourages other businesses to do the same, despite most of them being temporarily closing down.

“People need to stop worrying about their bills and just worry about community and helping others,” said Mahmoud in a statement to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Mahmoud has donated over $45,000 worth of non-perishable food.

Established businesses are also helping facilitate increased services during COVID-19.

Local grocery stores and pharmacies have reserved special hours for seniors to shop while avoiding heavy crowds. No Frills, Loblaws, and Shoppers Drug Mart have reserved their first hour of business for the safety and shopping convenience of seniors and those physically impaired.

While speaking with The Medium, Sohail explained why such businesses and organizations could benefit from mobilizing their resources.

“Social welfare organizations really need to specialize more and seek to be the best at what they can do. The right focus in and coordination of our efforts together can help to achieve greater efficiency in addressing the social challenges we see,” said Sohail.  

For those eager to help out, Sohail reiterated the importance of maintaining self-protection too, saying: “Precaution is very important, but at the same time that shouldn’t scare away people from volunteering with their community organizations which often rely heavily on volunteers.”

“We need to support the ones that are most vulnerable and take care of those around us and ourselves as well,” said UTM Scribes.

When describing the potential of academic-led relief efforts, the group said “we hope that we are able to lead by example and show everyone what UTM is capable of.”

The COVID-19 public health crisis has disproportionately impacted seniors and people living with disabilities. Health Canada reports that people between 50 to 70 are more likely to be diagnosed with the virus. 19 people have died after becoming diagnosed in Canada.

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