Last spring, as data from the U.S. showed startling disparities in the ways COVID-19 was infecting and killing Black and Brown Americans, Black health leaders in Canada — where race-based data wasn’t being collected — sounded the alarm. Dr. Upton Allen was one of them, and that advocacy led to action.
“Once data started to be collected that allowed us to make those assessments, it became really quite clear that individuals who were from racialized communities were much more likely to be affected by COVID-19, compared with other individuals,” recalls Dr. Allen, who is division head of infectious diseases at SickKids.
Together with community partners, Dr. Allen launched a pilot project to better understand how and why Black Ontarians were getting infected by COVID-19 at higher rates.
“In a couple of months, we will have a more complete picture of the full extent to which COVID-19 has penetrated into the Black community, and the individuals who are at the greatest risk for infection,” he explained.
He says the data will also allow scientists to see whether the improvements and supports being put into place are actually benefitting Black people.
He says the work is important to him not only because of his expertise in infectious diseases, but as one of the few Black people in his field in Canada.
Allen tells CityNews he knew representation was key, and it was important to not only lend his voice, but his time and work.
As well as being an infectious diseases leader at SickKids, he is also senior associate scientist in Child Health Evaluative Cciences at the hospital.
Still, he recently took on another role as the City of Toronto launched the Black scientists task force, in part to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
“The hesitancy isn’t confined to racial lines,” he notes. “That said, it became apparent to me as I was interacting with the Black community, because of my other projects, that it was really quite clear that there were several individuals in the community who were hesitant. But when you tried to drill down to find out why people were hesitant, the hesitancy was based on wrong information.”
Dr. Allen says he is now working to help people from the Black community get accurate information about the vaccines. He hopes this work will benefit Black and racialized communities while addressing the mistrust, and the systemic barriers to care and support these communities face.
“The goal is to provide correct information, not to twist anyone’s arm to be vaccinated,” he says.
The last year has been a long one for doctors and medical professionals. Afforded a moment to look back, Dr. Allen says he hopes he’ll be proud of two things when reflecting on this time.
“As a doctor, you just want to save lives. You want to ensure you improve the quality of people’s lives,” he says, adding, “I would be extremely pleased if I can say that the members of the Black community participated in an effort to generate information that related to them, and they were a part of that process.”