COVID-19 disproportionally impacting Black communities, people of colour in Toronto

As the province moves to collect race-based COVID-19 data, the signs are already pointing to significant inequities in the pandemic. Faiza Amin finds out what the outcome of that data should be, and how close we are to policy changes.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

After months of calls for the collection of race-based COVID-19 data, the information being released shows how the novel coronavirus is disproportionately impacting people of colour, particularly Black communities.

The province finally mandated public health agencies across Ontario to collect race-base data during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the question still remains when and how governments will be responding to these health inequities the data has uncovered.

The Ministry of Health say most public health units have started collecting the data and all will be collecting it within the next couple of days.

The Toronto Public Health unit was one of the first to begin collecting race-based data.

Numbers released by Toronto Public Health recently show that four of the top five neighbourhoods with the highest infection rates are each home to a population of over 60 per cent minorities and where 19 per cent of the population identify as Black.

In a stark contrast, four of the five neighborhoods with the fewest case counts are home to far fewer minorities and where less than six per cent of the population is Black.

York University Heights, where 69 per cent of residents identify are a visible minority, has 20 times the rate of infection that The Beaches neighborhood.

In Weston, the infection rate is 14 times that of the Rosedale neighbourhood, while in Rexdale-Kipling the rate is 11 times higher than Yonge-Eglinton.

Dr. Kwame Mackenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, says the data is not surprising to him as during other pandemics, including H1N1, there was a big racial difference in infection rates.

“The province needs to know who the people are at higher risks and then work with those communities on how best to protect them,” said Dr. Mackenzie.

During the H1N1 pandemic in Ontario, the province’s Black population was 10 times more likely to be infected, while south Asians were six times more like and South East Asians were three times more likely to be infected with the virus.

And according to Dr. Mackenzie, 20 to 30 percent of all the deaths were in Ontario’s Indigenous population.

“Ontario did set up different strategies to protect Indigenous populations from the flu, so this idea that we need to look at different populations is something that is normal in public health,” said Dr. Mackenzie.

Policy experts like Dr. McKenzie are surprised the same hasn’t been done during this even deadlier pandemic.

“I was actually very surprised that it wasn’t being done in this COVID response because it was predictable,” said Dr. McKenzie. “We set up different strategies to deal with different populations during H1N1. We knew there were racial differences in infection rates. We should have thought it through. We should have known that for COVID.”

The province has not yet provided any details of when the race-based data will be available to the public. When asked, the Ministry of Health said they plan to engage with community leaders and experts “regarding the use and communication of this data.”

When asked what steps are being taken to address the disparities that public health agencies have found, including in Toronto, again the Ministry of Health said local public health units and the province “are doing ongoing work to understand and address disparities related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Minister of Health Christine Elliott says the information collected will affect how they make decisions in the short term and long term.

“We are just starting to collect that data now but its’s going to give us a lot of information on the changes that we should be making in the future,” said Elliott.

Toronto Public Health says it will have a report on this data by the end of the month, adding the social determinants of health require involvement from multiple sectors including housing, childcare, and education.

A group of experts have called on the government to take a number of actions including collecting general data on health disparities, not just COVID-19.

“COVID response isn’t just about COVID. Its about fear of COVID, not getting access to healthcare, economic downturn and all that has impact on health,” said Dr. McKenzie

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