Rachel holds multiple jobs as a social services front-line worker in the Greater Toronto Area.
Recently after a long shift, she left work, went to the grocery store and returned home to her children. Global News has agreed to use a pseudonym for Rachel, as she fears reprisal from her employer.
That night she got a call from a crying co-worker — a resident they cared for was sick and was sent to the hospital to be tested for the novel coronavirus. Both she and her colleague are Black women, as are most of the relief and part-time staff where she works, she said.
While her colleague had learned about this from another co-worker, management did nothing to notify staff that a resident was sick and was now in hospital, Rachel said.
“Had the management contacted staff to say ‘Hey, we’re not going to disclose which resident, but we’ll keep you in the loop to the results,’ I would have been satisfied,” she said.
This is a facility where management or on-call staff would be available to support the residents if anyone decides not to come in due to a potential coronavirus outbreak, she said.
But the failure to be transparent with staff about the wellness of residents, especially when many managers are able to do their jobs at home, makes her feel they simply don’t care about the safety of her and other Black women taking care of residents.
“It’s disheartening,’” she said. “But when this happens … they don’t have the responsibility to notify us to self-quarantine or watch out for symptoms.
“It’s the devaluing of my life and the lives of my colleagues,” she said, important to recognize that Black people are over-represented among front-line workers, who bear the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rachel says there isn’t widespread recognition of racialized workers putting themselves at risk everyday often in jobs they can’t afford to quit. With no national or provincial efforts to collect data about whether Black communities are more likely to be infected or die from the coronavirus, she said she isn’t hopeful policy changes will come about that could provide solutions.
The impact of coronavirus on Black people
In the United States, data from 29 states shows that the coronavirus has killed Black Americans at a disproportionate rate, according to the Atlantic.
Earlier in April, an analysis by the Associated Press found that 42 per cent of COVID-19-related deaths in the U.S. are Black people, double their share of the population. Health disparities, a higher chance of working front-line jobs, less access to health care and being more likely to live in crowded, denser neighbourhoods are all factors contributing to a higher death rate, according to the AP.
In Canada, race-based data about which groups have been impacted by COVID-19 hasn’t been collected. Toronto Public Health announced on April 22 that it would begin to collect this information so it can address health inequities.
Even without that data, the health of Canada’s Black communities has long been a concern and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, according to a statement from Black leaders in health care across Ontario published by the Alliance for Healthier Communities on April 2.
In Ontario specifically, research shows Black people face barriers to employment and often rely on gig economy jobs, which are more precarious. Black women are more likely to be working front-line jobs as personal support workers (PSWs) or registered practical nurses, for example, according to the same statement.
A study by Ryerson University in 2009 — the most recent study available — found that 42 per cent of PSWs identified as a visible minority, close to double their share of Canada’s population at the time.
This week, the death of 51-year-old Arlene Reid, a Black woman who provided home care in Peel Region outside Toronto, sparked comments from the union representing community health-care workers across Ontario, claiming PSWs do not receive proper protection.
Why health inequalities exist in Canada
Black Canadians historically have worse health outcomes due to a myriad of factors that all stem from anti-Black racism — including the types of jobs to which they have access, where they live, income levels and lack of available resources, said Arjumand Siddiqi, Canada Research Chair in population health equity.
“What we know about the relationship between race and health suggests that it’s almost impossible to imagine that these disparities aren’t happening,” said Siddiqi, who’s also an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
For instance, Black women are 43 per cent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women, according to the Black Health Alliance, a national health advocacy organization. Black women are consistently underscreened for breast and cervical cancer, Global News reported last year.
Those who face various forms of systematic oppression and a lack of resources as a result almost always suffer the worst health, Siddiqi said.
Lack of access to safer jobs during the coronavirus pandemic — meaning workers can stay at home — is also a concern for Black communities, as they are currently more likely to be front-line workers, she says.
“Autonomy and income from those jobs also provides us with the resources to eat better and to live in more comfortable homes,” she said. “This is why these kinds of fundamental things about your resources, and your status, start to affect every mechanism to every disease.”
COVID-19 pandemic has ‘highlighted disparities’
Safia Ahmed, executive director of the Rexdale Community Health Centre west of Toronto, says she sees a clear health disparity in the communities her organization serves.
“What COVID-19 has done is that it’s highlighted those disparities,” she said.
Ahmed says her organization provides health promotion services to residents in the community of Rexdale and addresses social determinants of health that may prevent them from accessing care.
Many of their clients are either new immigrants or Black Canadians and have either lost their jobs due to COVID-19 or are working on the front lines, she says.
“People in these communities are experiencing food security issues, unemployment issues, and some are struggling to pay rent,” she said. “There are all these other social factors impacting one’s health … not having access to medication, your outcome when you contract disease is worse.”
The announcement that Toronto Public Health will start collecting race-based data for COVID-19 has been encouraging, and she hopes this data will be used to inform decisions and tackle health disparities in communities like the ones she serves, she says.
But beyond Toronto, the provinces and the federal government need to commit to keeping this kind of data as well, otherwise, it’s difficult to glean a full picture of how minority communities are being impacted, she says.
The need for race-based data
The lack of data available, along with the absence of a national conversation on which groups are the most impacted by COVID-19, continues to put minority groups in danger, said Kathy Hogarth, an associate professor of social work at the University of Waterloo.
“When our society is built on inequality, we already have those that are way outside that social safety net,” said Hogarth. “And it makes some bodies disposable.”
Without data that is collected consistently, it can be difficult to uncover inequalities that currently exist and prevents policy from being shaped to address those issues, she says.
“Without data, it’s all speculation, and as long as it remains in speculation, we can dismiss it,” she says. “What we need is a very rigorous way of collecting our data that looks at inequalities. I guarantee you there are inequalities; we are not all impacted in the same way.”
As Canada goes through this pandemic, it’s important that we think about how we want to collect data so we can better prepare in the future and work to protect marginalized communities, she says.
“Though we haven’t put the resources into collecting that kind of data, will we do it now? I wish that we would because I think it’s a detriment that we don’t.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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