Race and COVID-19: The dire need for data in Canada

In Canada, we pride ourselves on our healthcare system. It is a cornerstone of Canadian pride, something that we vehemently defend and boast about. In recent days, our health system and health leaders’ handling of COVID-19 has been lauded, especially when juxtaposed with abysmal outcomes in the United States. However, despite our successes in flattening the curve and monitoring the pandemic, there is one clear blindspot that emerges – race.

Racialized impacts of COVID-19: What the evidence is telling us

The disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on racialized communities have been well-documented in many developed nations. Healthcare scholars and analysts agree that they are the result of insidious colonial legacies and centuries of deeply entrenched systemic racism in these countries.

For example, in the United States, Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups in large urban centers. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, non-Hispanic Black persons have a hospitalization rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons.

In the United Kingdom, when compared to white Britishers, Black and People of Colour (POC) communities have definitely been hit harder by the virus. According to data collected by the Guardian, individuals from minorities are overrepresented among coronavirus deaths by as much as 27%. 

In Canada, while race-based research is in its nascent stages, anecdotal evidence has emerged that shows similar impacts of the virus, particularly on Indigenous communities. 

Indigenous peoples may be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to their long history of marginalization and systemic discrimination. 

Resultantly, even today, these communities struggle with serious issues such as lack of clean water, overcrowding, homelessness and a greater prevalence of disease, all of which exacerbate their coronavirus risk. It is also no secret that First Nations, Métis and Inuit people face significant barriers to accessing proper healthcare.

Unfortunately, while all of this is concerning for Indigenous communities in the face of COVID-19, due to a lack of race-based health data collection, we simply do not know the full extent of the virus’ impacts.

To be fair, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) has been monitoring COVID-19 cases on First Nations reserves. As of July 10th, the ISC has reported 343 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases and 6 deaths. However, many have expressed concerns over this figure, mainly because simply recording on-reserve cases does not adequately reflect what is happening in Indigenous communities across the nation. In fact, most Indigenous people do not even live on reserves.

Other racialized communities in Canada might be suffering from COVID-19 disproportionately as well. This should be no surprise as research has long documented the relationship between health outcomes and factors like race, immigration status and socioeconomic status. These interactions have also been observed during this pandemic.

For example, it was revealed that most of the workers from the notorious Cargill Alberta outbreak were Filipino. Similarly, health advocates pointed out that the highly infected neighbourhood of Montreal-Nord contains a large Haitian population. 

If anything, these observations and anecdotes underscore an urgent need for a standardized, robust, race-based data collection structure across Canada. 

Ignorance can be fatal: The need for more evidence

Currently, nothing of this sort exists and we simply do not have any clear way of knowing which groups are more at risk of COVID-19 or how they are faring. Since we have no idea which communities need to be prioritized in health policy and resource allocation, the vulnerable ones continue to suffer.

Recently, there has been some movement in a positive direction, mainly at the insistence of health advocates. A few provinces are now considering collecting race-based coronavirus data. Ontario has even granted certain health units permission to begin this collection.

However, unless there is quick progress and advancement on this issue, the health data infrastructure in Canada will remain largely barren…and while ignorance can sometimes be bliss, this particular lack of information is serious and potentially fatal for some of our communities.


juillet 16, 2020


Tanya Tewari


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