The pandemic’s hardest hit

A family from one of the affected communities, wearing masks together in a front yard photo. (Courtesy of Michelle Alveranga)

Black people are being infected at alarming rates from COVID-19. Areas like Black Creek, Mount Dennis, and Weston, which consist of predominantly Black and racialized populations, lower income families, and inadequate housing, have some of the highest infection rates. 

We have heard that systemic racism and lack of access to health care is to blame for a disproportionate number of infections, but what does this really mean? What makes the Black experience so unique to this pandemic?

There is a sense of disbelief in COVID-19 that comes with a distrust for hospitals and the government. Some members of the Black community use air quotes when referring to COVID-19 as if to imply it does not truly exist, or there is a covert agenda that is against them. Social media is flooded with tragic vaccine stories and claims that the Black community should avoid it at all costs. 

“A lot of folks have a low level of trust in the hospital system. North West Toronto was one of the latest areas to get assessment centres in hospitals.” says Cheryl Prescod, executive director at the Black Creek Community Health Centre. 

“We knew it would have a high number of positive cases. Many of the personal support workers that work in long-term care homes are racialized and live in these neighbourhoods, so they would need testing with better access.”

Thousands of cases have been traced to workplaces. What is it about Black people that makes them a target at their jobs? Prescod adds: “The types of jobs held by racialized people are service-oriented, like transportation, factory work, and grocery store jobs. These jobs do not afford people the work-from-home option, so they do have to get out and take public transit.”

The option to work from home is a luxury and privilege, reflecting the consequence of race-based inequities. Essential services are frontline jobs, but Black people seldom tend to represent the face of essential workers in the media.

“What we ​often don’t see are the Black people behind doing all the ​unseen tasks of cleaning the units daily. We are economically forced to be on the frontlines.” 

Nadia Prendergast, an assistant professor at York’s School of Nursing, says: “The pictures of frontline nurses are mainly of white people. What we ​often don’t see are the Black people behind doing all the ​unseen tasks of cleaning the units daily. We are economically forced to be on the frontlines.” 

Black people are hit hard due to less access to testing sites in their neighbourhoods. But even at their jobs, they work in conditions that directly expose them to the virus.

Lack of access to healthcare and precarious employment were conditions that Black communities have lived with for decades. Should we not have been more prepared for such a pandemic? 

One way of preparing is to collect data. Mathieu Poirier, global health researcher and assistant professor at York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, believes that we must “acknowledge and act on dealing with race-based inequities by collecting data. This wasn’t done prior to the outbreak. It was done only as a result of pressure from social groups and the community that demanded we acknowledge that Black people are being exposed to COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.” 

Insufficient government data on the Black community is yet another consequence of systemic racism. Data collection is key, especially if we want to take a more proactive stance to preventing surges and rising infection rates.

In discussing the possibility of a surge in the Black community, we must recognize that a surge can only exist amidst a lull. According to Prescod, there is no lull for Black people. “In marginalized communities where we are continuously excluded, there was no break. The curve continued to be high, so we worked with community groups and churches to set up testing sites.” 

Community agencies creating measures to make healthcare more accessible within Black communities and making mobile testing sites separate from hospitals is one way of managing increasing infection rates. This is a form of meeting community members where they are geographically, but still leaves the problem of distrust in public health unsolved.

“At the start, some people would talk about fear, not believing COVID-19 was real, that it was a conspiracy to get rid of poor and Black folks.”

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, says a “trusted source to bridge the gap is needed because people are listening to misinformation. Trust is rebuilt by moving together in a way that it’s clear we are here to serve you. What do you need? What can we do to help you enjoy optimal health?” 

Prescod knows exactly what rebuilding trust looks like within the community. “We took the opportunity to inform and educate people on the importance of safety measures. At the start, some people would talk about fear, not believing COVID-19 was real, that it was a conspiracy to get rid of poor and Black folks. 

“We had to counteract a lot of that messaging. We hired community residents to be champions and had them get tested to show that they are okay. There was lots of distrust at the beginning, but fast forward nine months later, folks are readily getting tested without making appointments, and grateful for access much closer to where they live.” 

A central theme in the Black experience is the importance of community and cooperation. Targeting systemic racism is a long-term goal, but community cooperation helps combat infection rates on a daily basis by dispelling myths about the virus and meeting members where they are. 

Dr. Caroline Shenaz Hossein, associate professor of business & society, says the “idea of cooperation, especially economic cooperation, and coming together is nothing new to the Black community. COVID-19, in some ways, has been a catalyst for people in need to come together and find ways we are able to pool resources.” 

From an economic standpoint, she speaks of “informal ways of mutual aide or money groups” that would allow the Black community to not rely so heavily on formal market systems that have collapsed as a result of the pandemic. Presumably, community money groups over time would shift members of the Black community out of frontline work and into less precarious employment, where options to work from home exist.

Hopefully, what we can gain from the pandemic is a renewed focus on working together as a collective and the inherent resilience of the Black community. Hossein says, “If we want to be truthful and more considerate of ideas and voices, then we need to look to the people for solutions. The collective doesn’t lose.”

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By Michelle Alveranga

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