Why we need race-based data on COVID-19
Hill Times April 20 2020
With more than 30,000 Canadians tested or presumed to have COVID-19, we are facing a health crisis like no other. This crisis will also shine a light on a number of weaknesses and inequities in our society, some of which are delineated along racial lines.
Twenty-nine states in the U.S. released a mix COVID-19 data by race and the data is already stark: Black Americans and Latino Americans are overrepresented and impacted, and two Indigenous communities in New Mexico “had higher infection rates than any U.S. county” on that day, according to a story on April in The Atlantic.
The pandemic is also touching Indigenous communities in Canada. Inuit in Nunavik are facing a crisis with 13 cases as of April 15. The community of Puvirnituq is a fly-in community located on the east side of James Bay with about 1,800 people and it has most of the cases in the region of northern Quebec. But there is no reliable data nationally to show if First Nations, Inuit, and Métis are impacted more than others. There is no reliable data.
In Canada, an Ontario provincial senior leader recently dismissed the idea of collecting and analyzing racial demographics for COVID-19. “Regardless of race, ethnic or other backgrounds, they’re all equally important to us,” said Ontario chief medical officer Dr. David Williams in The Toronto Star on April 10). This is, unfortunately, another example of the often used “all lives matter” response which denies the voices of minorities. Health officials might want to consider how to voice their appropriate concern for each patient that they treat, while also respecting the unique needs of each patient. It is possible to do both.
It is also possible and necessary for Canada to collect racial demographics on the impact of COVID-19. We need to know if black Canadians or Indigenous Canadians are disproportionately impacted. COVID-19 is colour-blind, but Canadian society is not.
Crowded housing which makes physical isolation impossible, lack of clean water, pre-existing health conditions, and lack of access to health services? This is the alarming picture of many Indigenous communities. COVID-19 is colour-blind, but the impact will paint a clear picture of the social inequalities in our country.
Will the data paint a picture that will be difficult to see? Yes, for those who have not seen this picture before. The truth is that for Indigenous Canadians, this picture is lived experience—it’s not new, it simply has not been documented clearly enough to encourage change.
With racial demographics on the impact of COVID-19, we will have the policy ability to do something about it. Without the data, we will not have the policy ability.
We cannot wait for Indigenous Services Canada to collate COVID-19 data for Indigenous peoples. Provinces and territories need to step up now in partnership with First Nations, Inuit and Métis health leaders to get this done. We need good anonymous data on a regional basis, or we won’t be able to learn anything from this crisis to benefit Indigenous health.
Too many white Canadians in positions of power are saying that racial data is not important. The next step is for thought leaders, like Canada 2020, to lead discussions on the country’s recovery, but without any data on how to reflect the needs of Indigenous Canadians or Black Canadians or other minorities. Without our voices. The irony that Canada declares itself to be a champion of minority rights is particularly painful this week.
Without the clear decisions of chief public health officers in each province and territory, without the clear leadership of the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network, this is how it might play out: COVID-19 data continues to ignore race or ethnicity so we’ll never have the information to know for sure how many minority Canadians are impacted, and the country misses the best opportunity to make real change in health systems and policy, and Indigenous health outcomes continue to lag behind other Canadians’ health.