TORONTO -- With just his iPhone and his bicycle, Toronto photographer John Hryniuk managed to capture one of the most iconic photographs of Canada’s COVID-19 crisis.

For months, Hryniuk has been cycling hundreds of kilometres across the Greater Toronto Area, documenting life, and death, in the year of COVID-19. He discovered this chilling wheelchair graveyard behind a long-term care facility in Mississauga, Ont. where 50 residents had died.

At the front of the facility, a makeshift memorial had been created with white crosses to represent each of the deaths. When Hryniuk took a stroll around the perimeter of the property, he discovered the discarded wheelchairs.

He asked an employee why they were out there, covered in plastic. He was told: “...those were the wheelchairs of the dead… they are quarantining the make sure they could reuse them again.” 

Discarded wheelchairs at long-term care home© John Hryniuk

Hryniuk says it wasn’t until he returned home and looked at the picture that he realized the power of the image.

"I was sitting in front of the computer. I felt like I could see bodies under the plastic. It kind of freaked me out, that’s how striking the image was to me.”

The stark black and white photo hauntingly represents the long-term care nightmare of the past year. Advocates for seniors say it was a critical—and deadly—error to focus on ensuring hospitals were prepared for the pandemic, at the expense of long-term care facilities.

Many homes across the country were unable to protect their residents. Of the more than 22,000 Canadians who have died of COVID-19, 55 per cent were in long-term care. The already broken system had widespread issues, including accessing PPE, overcrowding, understaffing, and insufficient infection control.

Lawyer and seniors’ advocate Laura Tamblyn Watts describes what happened to seniors over the last year as a “senicide.”

“We have blood on our hands. We have a senicide of seniors and we're seeing it still happen again. We haven't learned the lessons. When you know that older people are dying and you refuse to give the measures required to save them. There's nothing else to call it but a senicide.”

A senicide is the killing of the elderly or their abandonment to death.

Tamblyn Watts is terrified of a third wave and says an immediate fix is to offer sick pay to staff.

“Most of the infectious threat is coming in through staff and staff can't often afford to take time off, particularly women who are often racialized and low income, who are working in these homes. So 10 to 14 days of sick leave would make a huge difference.”

Seniors who survived the first year of COVID-19 endured isolation and crushing loneliness.

Devora Greenspon, 88, Toronto.

Devora Greenspon, 88, Toronto.

88-year-old Devora Greenspon offers a rare glimpse into what life has been like from inside a COVID-19 hot zone: a Toronto long-term care home.

“I've lost a whole year of my life, and at my age that's a big thing.”

Like many seniors, she has been unable to see or hug family members for a year. Only occasionally, last summer during a lull between waves, has she been able to venture outside and feel the sun on her face.

“I really didn't think about the fear of getting COVD. The isolation was horrific. [The staff are]...wearing masks and shields and all you see are the eyes. The only reason I recognize them is through their voices...I haven't seen them smile for over a year.”

The one glimmer of hope is the vaccine rollout. While there have been many complaints about the disjointed and slow progress, Devora has received both shots. 

Devora Greenspon receives COVID-19 vaccine

Devora Greenspon receives her second Covid-19 vaccine, February 7, 2021.

“I was so excited,” she says, and hopes it will mean she doesn’t have to live another year like the last. Devora is dreaming of a “hugging party” with her family.

Advocate Laura Tamblyn Watts says a robust vaccination rollout is key to make that dream come true.

“Getting the COVID-19 vaccine into the arms of Canadian seniors is the single most important thing we can and must do. The third wave, fuelled by more infectious and deadly variants is around the corner. Every day, every hour, every minute we wait to vaccinate older Canadians can be counted by the mounting death toll.”

To see more of John Hryniuk’s Pandemic Portfolio click here.

W5’s one-hour special “COVID: Year Two” airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on CTV.