Food relief deliveries and urban topologies of pandemic risk in Toronto

November 4, 2022 by Scott Prudham

My first day making emergency food relief deliveries for a volunteer organization based in the Jane Street and Finch Avenue area of Toronto’s northwest took place in April of 2020 amidst the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. I drove north from my home through areas of the city chronically underserved by public transit on what is typically a chaotically busy four-lane street. On that day, however, traffic was light as public health restrictions had led to school and daycare closures, and many people were staying home, including from work. In those early days of the pandemic in Toronto—memorable in hindsight for the way grocery store shelves were stripped bare of toilet paper, pasta, and other staples—compliance with restrictions and recommendations was relatively widespread. Yet, as I was soon to see first-hand, many people did not have the option to stay home. They were instead compelled to go to work, travelling—frequently by means of public transit, including on scandalously overcrowded busses—if they wanted to keep their jobs. This of course elevated the risk of viral exposure for themselves, their households, and the neighbourhoods in which working from home was more exception than norm.Footnote1

Such contrasts, from one neighbourhood to the next, sometimes from one block to the next, shaped an “urban topology” of pandemic risk in Toronto defined by the ways in which exposure risk and disease morbidity were constituted by uneven geographies of employment, but also food and housing security, income, wealth, racialized difference, and urban form. In what follows, I expand on these themes based on a series of food relief deliveries I made in Toronto over a period of 10 months, working for two different non-governmental organizations. After some comments regarding the basis of my observations, I reflect on some specific moments from my sojourns and set these in a broader context of urban socio-spatial inequality and the uneven geographies of the pandemic in Toronto. I then reflect on the notion of urban topology as a way of conceptualizing the spatiality of pandemic injustice.

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