Research Update: The Numbers Game: How Lack of Race-Based Data Collection During Covid-19 In Canada Has Highlighted Systemic Racism
A review by Jayme Wong
The Royal Society of Canada established its Task Force on COVID-19 in April 2020 to “provide evidence-informed perspectives on major scientific challenges in response to and recovery from COVID-19” (p. 2). The result of the task force’s findings is Impacts of COVID-19 in Racialized Communities, a collection of eleven essays published in May 2021.
Racism existed before COVID-19. The pandemic simply created conditions in which racism became more apparent. The attitudes, policies, and practices created and reinforced by individual, systemic, and cultural racism resulted in disparities that could no longer be ignored by mainstream society. In the anthology’s introductory essay, “The Background to Racism in Canadian Society,” author Frances Henry explains: “It is the racism that existed in settler societies, the racism that led to the subjugation of people through colonialism and the expansion of Europeans into far off places in the world, which created the conditions that exist today” (p. 14). COVID-19 became a racial issue when the historical roots of racism, colonialism, and imperialism created unequal conditions among people living in Canada.
Canada has never really collected race-based data related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Certain provinces, such as Manitoba and Ontario, started to collect this data recently—though only in clusters (p. 25). The result is that Canadians cannot accurately determine the impact that COVID-19 has had on different racial communities. However, just because we cannot determine how people of colour were affected does not negate the irrefutable fact that visible minorities were far more affected by the virus than white communities.
Take, for example, the data that the City of Toronto gathered throughout the pandemic: “In the Greater Toronto Area, whites account for 48 per cent of the population and 17 per cent of COVID-19 cases. This is in contrast to the situation with Black people who account for 9 per cent of the population and 21 per cent of cases” (p. 19). This data supports emerging statistics from the United States, which project that 1 in 1,125 Black Americans have died from COVID-19 compared to 1 in 2,450 White Americans (p. 25). Similar numbers collected from the United Kingdom also highlight the stark differences between rates for people of colour who are affected and dying from COVID-19 in comparison to white populations in the same areas.
The virus does not discriminate. Poor conditions grounded in centuries of systemic racism have worsened the impact of COVID-19 on certain groups. In addition to sickness, racialized communities have also had to deal with economic and social factors that cause uncertainty and instability in an already turbulent time. In the essay “Racial Inequality, COVID-19 and the Education of Black and Other Marginalized Students,” Carl E. James identifies the factors that contribute to inequality as access—or lack thereof—to nutrition, academic supports, mental health, and online learning (p. 30). People who face multiple barriers when accessing these resources are more likely impacted by the long-term health and social effects of COVID-19.
Health care experts have criticized the federal government’s decision not to collect race-based data during COVID-19. Many consider this decision a failure to provide support for marginalized communities and indicative of a flawed system built upon colonialism. In the essay “Race and Ethnicity Collection During COVID-19 in Canada: If You Are Not Counted You Cannot Count on the Pandemic Response,” Kwame McKenzie goes so far as to say that “seeing significant disparities and doing nothing active to deal with them is a form of systemic racism” (p. 67). The federal government’s silence on the issue does not hide the obvious harm that has already been inflicted by centuries of colonial policies that have prevented visible minorities from accessing necessary health and education resources or inhabiting clean, socially distanced spaces that increase quality of life.
Overall, the report’s primary recommendation is to begin collecting race-based data and to involve racialized communities in the collection and dissemination of the information. While this solution does not amend all of the damage that COVID-19, and other health crises, have already done, it is a step forward into a post-COVID and, more importantly, post-colonial nation. Having diverse voices at the table means that government decisions would no longer be made based on archaic legislation that—either intentionally or unintentionally—excluded and discriminated against minorities.
Although rebuilding in a post-COVID landscape is uncertain, it is also an opportunity to lay a new foundation that is informed by the mistakes made in the past. Re-examining the systems, institutions, and attitudes that have created unequal access to health care and other resources means people living in Canada can prevent history from repeating and begin a precedent for neighbouring nations.
Henry, F., James, C., Allen, U., Collins, T., Dei, G. J. S., Ibrahim, A., Jean-Pierre, J., Kobayashi, A., Lewis, K., Mawani, R., McKenzie, K., Owusu-Bempah, A., Walcott, R., & Wane, N. N. (2021). Impacts of COVID-19 in racialized communities. Royal Society of Canada. https://rsc-src.ca/en/research-and-reports/end-life-decision-making-policy-and-statutory-progress/covid-19-policy-briefing?mc_cid=41ac70285f&mc_eid=4a6bf13a01
About the volunteer:
Jayme Wong graduated from the University of Lethbridge in 2014 with a BA in English and Philosophy, and more recently graduated from the University of Alberta in 2020 with an MA in English and Film Studies. She currently works at a local non-profit, the Learning Centre Literacy Association.
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