BIPOC, low income earners found to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19


In a report titled “Initial Analysis of Socio-Demographic Indicators for COVID-19 Cases” released by the Region of Waterloo Public Health in Nov. 2020, local data suggested that COVID-19 has had “a significant disproportionate impact on individuals who identify as a visible minority, as Black, who have a before-tax income of less than $50,000 and whose first language is not English or French.”

Socio-demographic indicators were collected from 682 Waterloo Region COVID-19 cases reported between July 17-Oct. 21, 2020.

The report indicated that there were gaps in the cases on socio-demographic risk factors as well as a lack of Indigenous representation in the data that was collected.

However, the findings in this report are a reflection of issues that have affected BIPOC and vulnerable communities that predate the COVID-19 pandemic, and that extends both locally and beyond the scope of Waterloo Region.

Ciann L. Wilson, assistant professor in the community psychology program at Wilfrid Laurier University and member of Region of Waterloo’s Anti-Racism Working Group, recognizes the influence and longstanding impact that COVID-19 is placing on marginalized individuals.

“If we’re just looking at the rates, we know that whether we’re talking about locally here in Waterloo Region or we’re talking across the province even, we know that racialized folks, Black communities in particular … Indigenous communities, especially those on reserve have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Wilson said.

“… that’s another impact factor that we are seeing higher rates in homeless or precariously housed communities or substance-using communities as well.”

The current global pandemic is not the first crisis to significantly impact people based on their socio-economic and racial status.

“We’re seeing all of these social ills that we know exist within disenfranchised communities be exacerbated under the current epidemic. I will point out, COVID-19 is just the most recent epidemic to hit a lot of these communities,” Wilson said.

“If we think about colonialism as an epidemic, or racism as an epidemic or the opioid crisis or the HIV crisis, these are the communities. These equity-seeking and sovereignty-seeking groups are the groups that have been heavily impacted by all of those epidemics and COVID-19 is just the most recent one.”

As for the reasons behind why these people are disproportionally impacted by epidemics, it is necessary to understand the social determinants of health and health inequalities in Canada.

“I always find that so interesting that there’s never a conversation as to why communities that are often impoverished, don’t have access to healthy food, live in food deserts … We never talk about the structural factors that lead to certain communities being more susceptible than others … it’s rooted in social, structural and colonial determinants of health,” Wilson said. 

A 2011 report, “Addressing Social Determinants of Health in the Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network Area: A Public Health Perspective on Local Health, Policy, and Program Needs,” focuses on the demands for priority neighbourhoods that include a number of Black and racialized communities.

As COVID-19 has pushed through 2020 and into 2021, the needs of these communities have been heightened more than ever before. Local government and health officials are being called on to appropriately address the effects of those struggling the most under the weight of the pandemic.

These needs include improved PPE strategy for disadvantaged local residents and ensuring that community organizations are better equipped with COVID-19 resources.

“If we look at Waterloo Region, there has not been a response. I’m a part of the African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) Network of Waterloo Region and recently we had to write a statement to our local public health officials to basically bring attention to the fact that there are disproportionate COVID-19 rates in Black communities,” Wilson said. 

“Black communities represent almost three per cent of the region’s population but makeup 16.7 per cent of local COVID-19 cases. We’re seeing these disproportionate rates in our own community.”

“And we had to write a statement to bring attention to that so that the public health officials would pay attention and realize that there is an issue here along race lines that require addressing. Not in a stereotyping way, it’s not about stereotyping a community, it’s not about demonizing a community, or having all of these racist tropes, it’s about coming up with solutions,” she said.

The acknowledgement that was issued by the region is one that Wilson believes is indicative of a greater, more widespread issue that places the responsibility of finding solutions on the people who are experiencing these problems firsthand.

“The response to that was, by-and-large, to recruit community members to help form those solutions. They didn’t have any ready solutions,” Wilson said.

“And I think that’s really reflective of the larger province, the fact that they’re relying on communities to come up with their own solutions to fight COVID-19 because they don’t have any solutions that are ready for racialized, Indigenous and Black communities.”

“I think that’s a really frightening reality that we have public health experts that don’t acknowledge the problem, don’t know how to address it and are then relying on community members to come up with their own solutions for fighting the issues,” she said.  

In order to effectively address these issues, Wilson noted that the onus should be on the institutions that have the authority to enact these changes and extend their reach to vulnerable populations while being responsive to them.

“We’re at this particular juncture and you don’t have ready solutions … Have you hired people from the communities? Have you set up a plan for how to engage with and address community needs? Have you factored in the social and colonial determinants of health?” Wilson said.

“[That] drives so much of the health crises in Black, Indigenous and racialized communities. And if you haven’t done any of those things, then in moments of crisis like this, the issue is just again, exacerbated.”

As for how these communities will be affected by the pandemic long term, they are already in the midst of experiencing life-altering consequences.

“To be quite honest, we know that we’re going to see increased levels of death in our communities. We know for example, in the Black community specifically, a large proportion that work in healthcare,” Wilson said.

“They’re personal support workers, they’re nurses, these are the folks that are on the front lines. And we know that of the deaths of frontline workers, they have been Black-identified people, male and female.”

“We’re already seeing the casualty of what’s going on here. In the absence of addressing these issues, our communities will die,” she said.

“That is the result of a lack of response or the lack of a strategic response to what’s happening in the region.”

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Ontario, Public Health requested assistance from community members to help them with that strategy — a response that Wilson believes was irresponsible and ineffective.

“You’re relying on communities to essentially save themselves,” Wilson said.

“I think one of the grave disasters is that the average civilian who is not a public health expert shouldn’t be left to do these things themselves.”

For those looking to become more effective allies and advocates for social change, self-education is key.

“In terms of advocacy, it’s becoming aware. Aware of what’s going on, that these rates have so much to do with socio-structural determinants of health, so not blaming communities for their contraction is one of the most important things that one can do,” Wilson said. 

“All of those processes of victim-blaming are often very deeply rooted in classist and racist assumptions about how people should act and live. That’s not a reality for most racialized and Indigenous peoples.” 

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