Canada's covid-19 crisis needs a targeted response. When will its leaders learn?

In British Columbia, a province where there were relatively few deaths compared to Ontario and Quebec, the mortality rate, standardized by age, from covid-19 was more than 10 times higher in communities with more ethnic diversity than in communities that were mostly all White.

In Toronto, the South Asian community was impacted most, with communities with a South Asian population of 25 percent or higher reaching a mortality rate of 35 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to communities with 1 percent or fewer South Asians, which had a rate of death of 26.2 per 100,000.

The data is particularly shocking in Montreal, where communities with a Black population of 25 percent or more had mortality rates of 149.3 per 100,000 people, compared to 88.1 per 100,000 in communities with a population that was less than 1 percent Black residents.

This report affirms what has been long known. Back in May, a joint investigation between the National Observer and CTV News tried to understand why the community of Montreal North became ground zero in Montreal’s outbreak. The combination of low incomes, crowded housing and high-rise clusters all helped facilitate the swift spread of covid-19. One month later, CBC journalists correlated income, race and covid-19. While race-based data for those who had covid-19, including those who died, was not collected by public health authorities, CBC’s reporting demonstrated that the mix of race, a concentration of health-care support workers and income was what made Montreal North a covid-19 hotspot.

In fact, of the at least 29 health-care workers who have died from covid-19 in Canada, 13 have been Black — 45 percent of known deaths for a group who comprise just 3.5 percent of Canada’s population. Five others were Southeast Asian. The overwhelming majority of the workers who have died have not been white, according to my tracking.

And yet, politicians have failed to design a pandemic response that targets the communities most at risk.

No provincial leader has developed a covid-19 response strategy that would intervene directly in racialized communities to help them battle outbreaks. Even worse, the premier of Quebec, François Legault, has denied the existence of systemic racism within the province, saying, “My definition of systemic racism is that there’s a system in Quebec of racism, and I don’t think there’s a system. … Why do we have to fight for months about one word instead of fighting together against racism?”

It isn’t just Legault. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has not developed any targeted relief measures that would mitigate the virus’s impact within these communities. Though Ford’s government has committed funding to schools in some covid-19 hotspots, there has been no extra money specifically for schools whose student populations are more diverse. There have also been no workplace safety measures passed that help target the relationship between low-income care work and covid-19 spread.

Federally, Prime Minister has spoken about systemic racism. It was even mentioned in the Throne Speech, delivered Sept. 23: “The Government pledged to address systemic racism, and committed to do so in a way informed by the lived experiences of racialized communities and Indigenous Peoples.” But the promises that follow don’t mention covid-19, and there was nothing to improve the various relief programs to help underrepresented communities weather the storm.

Refusing to understand the pandemic through the lens of race has allowed the virus to spread. If differences in living conditions, workplaces, communities, schools and health services drive covid-19 spread, then addressing that spread requires politicians to acknowledge its particular impact on racialized communities and act accordingly.

As a second wave intensifies across Canada, and many people call for lockdown measures similar to the spring, we have to be clear about how these measures should be imposed. During the first wave, lockdowns immediately stopped covid-19 infections from rising in Toronto among the city’s whitest and wealthiest quartiles. For the rest, their infection rates continued to soar.

To slow the spread of the second wave, we need to implement targeted interventions that flow money and services to racialized communities first and to give low-income workers paid time off and access to adequate places to quarantine if necessary. We also need even essential industries to slow down their production, especially if their workers are disproportionately low-income and from minority backgrounds. By slowing the spread of the virus among the most vulnerable, we can help everyone. But this takes political will — and the understanding that a racialized problem requires a racialized solution.

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