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New Toronto data shows how racialized, lower-income communities being hit hard by coronavirus

Dr. Eileen de Villa speaks at Toronto city hall on Thursday.
Dr. Eileen de Villa speaks at Toronto city hall on Thursday. Global News

Stark new data from Toronto Public Health shows racialized and lower-income communities in the city are being disproportionately affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“There is growing evidence in North America and beyond that racialized people and people living in lower-income households are more likely to be affected by COVID-19 infection,” Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters during a news conference Thursday afternoon, noting the reasons are not fully understood yet.

“We believe it is related to poverty and racism.”

De Villa said the data was collected from individuals between May 20 and July 16.

Read more: Black neighbourhoods in Toronto are hit hardest by COVID-19 — and it’s ‘anchored in racism’: experts

“Collecting and analyzing these data informs our public health response and actions to protect your health,” she said.

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According to de Villa’s presentation, 83 per cent of people who have contracted COVID-19 in Toronto are racialized. However, Toronto’s racialized communities make up 52 per cent of the city’s population.

De Villa said Arab, Middle Eastern, West Asian, Black, South Asian, Latin American and Indo-Caribbean people are overrepresented in the total number of cases compared to the population statistics.

She said Arab, Middle Eastern and West Asian people makeup four per cent of Toronto’s population but represent 11 per cent of COVID-19 cases. De Villa said Black people makeup nine per cent of Toronto’s population but represent 21 per cent of COVID-19 cases.

It was noted East Asian and white residents are underrepresented in the total number of cases compared to the population statistics.

When it comes to the income of those affected, she said those with lower incomes are overrepresented in COVID-19 cases. De Villa said 51 per cent of those with COVID-19 are considered lower-income, which is compared to 30 per cent of the city’s population who meet the same definition.

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For those earning under $50,000, the share of COVID-19 cases was more than 10 per cent higher than the share of the Toronto population. Twenty-seven per cent of those who contracted COVID-19 live in households with five or more people.

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De Villa said targeted and pop-up testing, enhanced communications and increased social supports (e.g. voluntary isolation sites) will need to be boosted in the short-term to help those communities especially at risk.

“In the longer term, however, if we want to have a true impact, a real impact on improving health … we need to address these health inequities and get to the root cause of what underpins our overall health,” she said.

Read more: Canadian officials urged to collect race-based health data during COVID-19

“We need to focus on the social determinants of health, like affordable housing opportunities, access to employment and income supports and educational opportunities, and yes we need to address systemic racism.”

De Villa said it was also important to note long-term care homes were not included and some residents declined to share their information, adding some were in critical condition and unable to provide race and income data.

She also said Indigenous communities weren’t included in the current round of data collection due to ongoing consultation with those communities.

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Read more: City of Toronto urges province to collect COVID-19 race and occupation data

Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute — a public health-focused think tank, called Thursday’s data announcement “very welcome but very concerning.” He said urgent action is needed to respond to the findings.

“COVID is not a great equalizer. COVID-19 discriminates. It exacerbates existing social and economic differences,” he said.

“Early in the pandemic, we were focused on flattening the curve but there was less focus on who was under the curve and whether the pandemic response was protecting all of our communities.

“If diversity is our strength, then we should have public health, social and economic responses that work well for everybody. Data can help us do that.”

McKenzie said officials need to be mindful about data collection and community control of that data. He said another concern of his surrounds the broadness of the data collected, noting collective experiences can be lost because the data is at a high level.

“Can data alone tell us the stories of racialized essential workers who put themselves and their families at risk to ensure our way of life continued during the pandemic? Can data tell the stories of people frustrated in trying to protect themselves and physically distance because they are overcrowded because of Toronto’s housing market?” McKenzie said.

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“This is a landmark press conference because it is the beginning of a journey. If we want a COVID response and a health system more fitting to Toronto, we need an equity-based COVID-19 pandemic plan. We need social policy and recovery plans on decreasing current inequities.”

Read more: Canada’s lack of race-based COVID-19 data hurting Black Canadians: experts

When asked why more wasn’t done sooner for racialized and lower-income residents, de Villa said much of the early work was focused on understanding the virus and fighting transmission. She also said it wasn’t until Toronto Public Health staff built their own database to track COVID-19 cases that they had the ability to proactively track race- and income-based data.

Coun. Joe Cressy, who is also the chair of Toronto’s board of health, said it felt like “a punch to the gut” when he heard the statistics.

“Perhaps they shouldn’t surprise us. We know that race and income have long determined health status, but they do represent a call to action,” he said Thursday afternoon.

“COVID by no means created these racial and economic disparities in Toronto — they existed long before — but COVID has certainly exposed and taken advantage of them.”

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Mayor John Tory said “although this information is tough to hear,” it’s better in the long-term because the evidence shows where efforts need to be focused.

“This data once again shows us the magnitude of the task before us and just how much of a challenge this inequity represents to our shared collective values as Torontonians,” he said.

“By working collaboratively with community agencies and of absolute necessity with other governments, we know that we can address these issues the best possible way. Community organizations are a key partner in this because they know best the communities and neighbourhoods they serve.”

Tory went on to say the City of Toronto needs funding from the upper levels of government to fund the initiatives needed to respond.

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