Peel Region, South Asian community disproportionately hit during first year of COVID-19: study

A McMaster University study, funded by the federal government, found a large South Asian Canadian community in Peel Region emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot in Ontario before the local rollout of vaccines starting in April 2021. Global News

A new study has found South Asian Canadian communities living in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic.

The analysis, which received $1.5 million from the federal government, confirmed Peel Region was Ontario’s COVID hot spot in the pandemic prior to April 2021 when vaccines started to roll out.

About 23.6 per cent of the province’s cases during the second wave of the pandemic were within Peel despite the region only accounting for 10 per cent of Ontario’s total population.

Dr. Sonia Anand, principal investigator for the study from McMaster University’s Department of Medicine, says people whose ancestry originated from the Indian subcontinent and live in the GTA were recruited for a portion of the research.

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In a study of 916 of those residents, tested between April 14 and July 28, 2021 for pre-vaccine COVID infections, about 24 per cent presented characteristics in line with an individual who had the virus circulating in their system.


Dr. Sonia Anand, a professor at McMaster University’s Department of Medicine and senior scientist at the Population Health Research Institute (PHRI) says lower socioeconomic status was the primary determinant of higher seropositivity rates during the COVID-19 pandemic in Peel Region’s South Asian community. McMaster University

“So this report gives a kind of a quantitative data to what people believe to be true – that South Asians in the Peel Region had a high infectivity rate with COVID 19,” Anand told Global News.

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The probe, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) Open, also touches on sociodemographic factors, or social determinants of health that put certain ethnicities at higher risk of contracting COVID compared to the general population.

Anand says the data suggests “social disparities” are in play in Peel due to a large number of participants identifying as essential workers – like truck drivers and individuals working in plants – living in extended family homes of lower socioeconomic status and annual household income.

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Seropositivity, the presence of an immunologic marker in a blood test, was higher for male participants who were branded as the least educated of test subjects and residing in the City of Brampton.

“It really seems to reflect that individuals who have to do essential work (are exposed to) a greater chance of infection or are living in larger family households,” said Anand.

We also saw some of the reasons behind that – maybe they can’t take days off work or in the Peel Region there was difficulty accessing testing early on.”

Results from the study are expected to be utilized in future COVID waves, like the seventh predicted for the fall by Hamilton Public Health, prioritizing health-care resources for at-risk communities.

Dr. Catherine Hankins, co-chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), says the research was funded to get a “clearer picture” of factors underpinning the vulnerability of the South Asian community.

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“Understanding the factors that rendered any community or region a hot spot for COVID-19 will not only help us manage future pandemics, the insights can also inform Canada’s ongoing efforts to achieve more equitable health outcomes on a population-wide basis,” Hawkins said in a statement.

Future segments of the study are expected to survey populations to determine the impact of long COVID on similar survey subjects.

Overall, Anand insists the study “drives home the point” that inequities in terms of health-care access exist across Ontario.

“I hope our data will add to the facts that show the Peel Region and South Asian populations represent a high risk community for future waves and … will be prioritized by the provincial government as a community that needs more health-care resources,” Anand said.

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