By Amy Go, President, Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice
COVID-19 does not impact all of us in the same way. It’s easy, but simplistic, to think otherwise – that this horrible virus can infect and affect everyone equally, regardless of wealth, fame, race, etc. Some celebrities have fallen into this trap, trying to find commonality with their fans by showing how they are also self-isolating and everyone is in the same boat. Sadly, some of our well-respected health professionals and other leaders have also taken this simplistic but misguided approach, in opposing demographic statistics that can provide analysis and support for the parts of our community who are disproportionately affected by this pandemic.
Toronto Public Health, as well as Peel Public Health, recently acknowledged that “who you are” affects how susceptible you are to COVID-19 and how the disease would impact on you. By collecting data on race and income, Toronto is just following the principles of social determinants of health that underpin the Public Health system. It is about time that all our Federal and Provincial Public Health authorities, including our Prime Minister, do the same. We must all “face race”, and recognize that our race matters in this pandemic and more generally in all of our lives in Canada.
I recoil when reading about the disproportionate and tragic impact of COVID-19 on Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. This does not come as a surprise, knowing that being poor, prone to certain diseases, and working in low-paid frontline essential services would put the Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. at much greater risk. I can only hope that the public attention will be sustained and eventually lead to longer term and systemic improvements for Blacks, Hispanics and other people of colour.
My heart aches seeing the devastating impact of COVID-19 on prisoners, seniors and residents in long term care, and people in homeless shelters and refugee shelters across Canada, and around the world. The heart-wrenching accounts of affected family members touch all Canadians deeply.
However, absent in these stories are the profiles and voices of the frontline workers in these settings, in particular, nursing staff, personal support workers, housekeeping, and food and environmental services workers. Based on my 18 years of experience managing a long term care home, a significant number (likely a majority of them in Ontario) are women of colour.
Just like their counterparts in U.S., people of colour in Canada are working in the frontline serving and delivering food, caring for the sick, working in farms, meat/food plants and factories producing masks and other supplies. People of colour in Canada, as in the U.S., are more prone than the average population to heart diseases, diabetes and asthma. Poverty is also more prevalent among people of colour communities in Canada as well. Let’s not forget that Indigenous Peoples in Canada fare worse by many of these measures. Sharing this reality of racial inequality with the U.S., it is only logical for Canada to also collect and report the race and income of people affected by COVID-19. Collecting and reporting this data shows our respect to the people of colour who are exposing themselves to higher risks so that the rest of us can stay home safe.
Who we are in terms of age, gender, income and race impacts on more than just the risks of exposure and the outcome of care. Race also matters in how we are being treated just from being out in the public during the pandemic. For Chinese and Asian Canadians, race alone puts you at risk of racist attacks when going about your daily lives in the pandemic.
My niece, a Chinese Canadian internist in Toronto, is one of the frontline health care workers who is taking care of COVID-19 patients in acute care. For fear of infecting her parents, she has been isolating herself in a condo and taking public transit every day for work. The horrifying image of the 92-year-old Asian senior dragged and assaulted in a racist incident in Vancouver made me far more worried about my niece’s safety on the streets of Toronto than in the hospital.
After a political leadership candidate (MP Derek Sloan) suggested that our Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is more loyal to China than Canada, he did not face any sanctions for this racist attack. This signifies to all Canadians that it is open season for racism against Asian Canadians. The only right thing for Andrew Scheer, as a leader of Opposition, to do is demonstrate that the Conservative Party does not tolerate racism by expelling Derek Sloan and barring him from running as leader.
Our federal and provincial public health leaders should follow the footsteps of the Public Health departments in Toronto and Peel Region, in collecting and reporting race and income of people affected by COVID-19. We commend the Prime Minister for setting up an advisory group addressing disabilities issues arising from COVID-19. We urge the Prime Minister to establish an advisory group dedicated to addressing racism issues in the pandemic. In fighting this virus, we must also fight its disproportionate impact, and we must “face race.”