Calgary’s northeast quadrant has been seeing the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the city through much of the pandemic.
And now, the more than 200,000 residents in that quadrant are under the provincial spotlight.
Premier Jason Kenney told RED FM last week that Calgary is seeing “very high” spread of the novel coronavirus in the South Asian community living in the city’s northeast.
“We know that it’s a tradition to have big family gatherings at home, and we think this is one of the reasons why we have seen a much higher level of spread in the community than in other parts of the population, and the higher spread of northeast Calgary than other parts of the province,” Kenney told host Rishi Nagar.
“So I’m calling your program with a wake-up call.”
But calling out the South Asian community doesn’t sit well with Ward 5 councillor George Chahal, who said the premier shouldn’t target any specific group.
“It’s important to have a consistent message to Calgarians,” Chahal told Global News.
“(COVID-19) targets everybody in our city who can contract it.”
Behind the numbers
As of Monday, the Calgary Upper NE AHS local geographic area (LGA) had 1,261 active cases, the most of any LGA in the province.
Calgary Lower NE has the second-highest active case rate per 100,000 people of Calgary LGAs at 510.9, a rate higher than all Canadian provinces except Manitoba.
Ward 5 nearly completely overlays with the Calgary Upper NE LGA. Wards 5 and 10 geographically match Upper and Lower NE.
Case counts in Calgary’s two northeast LGAs account for more than 35 per cent of the city’s active cases and more than 11 per cent of cases in Alberta, despite only having less than five per cent of the province’s population.
Dr. Dan Gregson, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, points to socio-economic conditions as a likely contributor to increased coronavirus rates in the city’s northeast.
“It’s fairly clear (from scientific journals) that higher numbers are seen in groups that have a higher population density, groups that have a higher proportion of youth and groups that have lower income,” Gregson said.
“For every $10,000 drop in income, you get an increase in COVID(-19) rates.”
In Ward 5, 29 per cent of households have five or more people per home. In Ward 10, it’s 18 per cent. An average of 10 per cent of homes across the city have five or more people in them and both wards skew younger than the citywide average.
“The virus is not confined to one part of the city, but we are seeing higher cases in northeast Calgary likely caused by working and living conditions,” Chahal told Global News.
He said residents in his ward “are working-class Calgarians and they work on the front lines” in settings like warehouses and distribution centres, public transit, grocery stores, nursing homes and hospitals. And the northeast ward has some of the highest rates of public transit use among Calgarians.
“They don’t have a choice to work from home like many others do in our community,” Chahal said.
“The most likely person you’re going to infect, if you get COVID(-19), is someone you live with,” Gregson said.
“If I’ve got a household full of five people, obviously there’s more people I can infect, so you get larger numbers,” the U of C assistant professor told Global News. “The more people you’re in contact with while you’re infected, the greater the opportunity for spread.”
“It’s a situation where transmission will spread quickly in that family, not necessarily because someone chose not to take social responsibility and had guests over again,” Ward 3 councillor Jyoti Gondek said Monday.
She said households of all ethnicities in Calgary have been having social visits in the home prior to the most recent public health order prohibiting those get-togethers.
When Gondek heard the premier doubling down on the assertion of in-home transmission of the novel coronavirus — excluding the possibility that Calgarians are catching it on the job — on the city’s only radio station that primarily broadcasts in Hindi and Punjabi, Gondek called it “indefensible.”
“How do we know that when 80 per cent of transmissions are unknown in terms of their source?” said Gondek, who is a member of Calgary’s South Asian community.
“I don’t know how he can verify a comment like that.”
Chahal said many of the essential service jobs his ward residents take expose them to risk of catching COVID-19.
“When you’re on the front lines working, it is quite challenging because you will come in contact,” he said Monday. “And we do need further support to address many of these issues that residents are facing and ensure that the decisions we make are evidence-based.
“I think one big issue that we’ve seen right now… (is) a failure in our contact tracing. We don’t have a robust contract-tracing system.”
Chahal also said there need to be more supports for essential workers, like improved working conditions and financial support.
Having paid sick leave, for example, would allow for people to not feel like they had to go into work in order to support their family.
Gregson said it would help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“We need to support people to stay home, both when they’re infected and if they are a contact,” he said. “We need those contacts not circulating in the community and infecting other people.”
Serving the South Asian community
Punjabi Community Health Services Calgary, a counselling and addictions support non-profit located in the northeast, has seen increased demand for its services.
Twenty per cent of its calls are COVID-19-related. PCHS has seen a 50 per cent jump in suicide-related calls. On social media, it has seen a 400 per cent jump in followers.
The non-profit has also seen a need to help get mental health and public health messaging into the community in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu using interpretive — not literal — translation.
“We’re very aware of the cultural nuances,” said Nina Saini, the executive director of PCHS. “For a lot of our information that we’ve put out, we’ve been able to translate, whether it’s about restrictions, whether it’s about caution and precautions or preventative measures.”
Having language- and culturally-specific messaging targeted at communities with a large number of recently-arrived immigrants is important during a public health emergency.
“You can go on the radio all you want and be like, ‘Hey, people in the northeast: stay at home, don’t go out,’” Saini said.
“If you can’t understand the basis of a message, how do you expect people to be able to caution themselves the same way?”
Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said AHS has been working to get materials out in a variety of languages to address any communication gaps.
“At a provincial level, we have made sure that the materials that are available on our website, as well as printable materials and materials that are being made available throughout the province, are available in many different languages,” she said Monday.
“And we’ve worked with AHS and the local public health teams who have been making direct connections with individuals in different ethnic communities.”
Gondek said the premier got the South Asian community’s attention with his appearance on RED FM.
“The South Asian community has noticed this,” she told Global News. “They’re not impressed and they’re wondering why their community was singled out and no other.”
Speaking with Danielle Smith on Global News Radio 770 CHQR, Kenney said “nothing in COVID(-19) is about blame.”
The premier said his COVID-19 cabinet committee has been discussing the need to improve outreach to areas of the province with “disproportionately high” spread of the coronavirus, pointing to areas with lower socio-economic indicators and more dense housing.
He also said his government is working on providing supports for people who need to self-isolate but can’t because of their housing situation.
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“I’ve asked our team to come up with a much, much bigger package of free hotel isolation, where the province will cover the bills if somebody tests positive or they’re symptomatic and they’re in a home environment or in a very dense housing environment and they cannot self-isolate — we want to be able to get them into a hotel,” Kenney said Monday.
Taking it seriously
Gondek said members of the South Asian community are taking the coronavirus pandemic as seriously as any other community.
One example she shared was when the Ahmadiyya women’s auxiliary cancelled its International Women’s Day event a week before the World Health Organization declared the pandemic.
“They changed it at the last minute and told everyone, ‘We will not take the risk of exposing people to a disease that we’re still not certain about,’” Gondek said.
She also highlighted a recent, locally-organized rally to raise awareness of the plight of Punjabi farmers following recent legislation from the Indian government.
“They also realized that having a rally would put people at risk. So instead, they did a parade of vehicles.”
Chahal said the residents of his ward have also had drastically different-looking ceremonies and celebrations, like Ramadan and Diwali, “where the communities have not gathered and they have not celebrated like they traditionally do.”
“They’ve abided by public health measures that have been brought forward,” he said.
Chahal said health authorities are “guessing where and why” COVID-19 is spreading with such ferocity in Calgary’s northeast.
“I believe it’s a combination of factors, mostly to do with how people live in those dense communities, and that they have to go to work every day and provide for their families,” the Ward 5 councillor said.
“And to do the jobs that others aren’t doing right now.”