‘A fight for the soul of the city’: Report shows how COVID-19 has deepened Toronto’s racial and economic divide

No real surprise as it confirms other reports and analysis, both in Toronto and elsewhere. Nevertheless, extremely disturbing:

Higher COVID-19 infection rates. Higher unemployment. Deepening poverty.

Racialized and lower-income Torontonians are bearing a heavier burden during the coronavirus pandemic, which is widening the gap between rich and poor in this city.

That’s the grim conclusion delivered by the Toronto Fallout Report, which provides a snapshot of where Torontonians stand in the midst of the pandemic.

Released Thursday by the Toronto Foundation — which also produces the annual Vital Signs report — this latest report offers an interim look at how the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequality in the city.

Among the report’s findings:

  • People earning less than $30,000 a year are 5.3 times as likely to catch COVID-19 than those making $150,000 or more.
  • Black, Latin American and Arab, Middle Eastern or West Asian Torontonians have COVID-19 infection rates at least seven times as high as white residents.
  • About 30 per cent of Torontonians are struggling to pay rent, mortgage, food, utilities and other essentials.
  • Across the country, Canadians who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) have unemployment rates almost twice as high as white Canadians. Nearly one-third of BIPOC youth are unemployed, compared to 18 per cent of white youth.

The report shows just how much of a “crisis moment” this is for Toronto, said Mohini Datta-Ray, the executive director of the North York Women’s Shelter and one of the dozens of non-profit leaders who were consulted for the report.

“The consensus is really, really loud and clear that this is a fight for the soul of the city, for who we are as a city.”

The pandemic didn’t create this inequality, she said, but it has magnified it and exploded it into view.

“We’ve all been ringing the alarm bells for years, decades really,” Datta-Ray said. “There’s been a worsening over time and any of us that are working with vulnerable, marginalized, low-income families know how desperate these times have already been.”

The report looks at a broad range of issues, from income and employment, to food security and housing, and what comes up again and again is the widening gulf between rich and poor, and how that divide is increasingly occurring along racialized lines.

“When I looked through the report, for me it really highlighted how deeply embedded racism and white supremacy are in just about all of our systems and institutions,” said Paul Taylor, executive director of FoodShare Toronto, which has dramatically increased its services in response to rising food insecurity during the pandemic.

“It seems like communities that are made up predominantly of white folks have had a very different experience of the pandemic.”

In Toronto, racialized people make up 52 per cent of the population, but currently account for 79 per cent of the COVID-19 infections. The highest infection rates in the city are concentrated in the neighbourhoods with the most racialized people.

It’s in those neighbourhoods where people are often living in crowded housing, Taylor said, and where people are more likely to have to take public transit to low-wage jobs without adequate sick days, PPE or the opportunity to physically distance.

“We really have to ask ourselves what allows us to chronically underinvest in the communities where there are higher incidences of COVID infections,” Taylor said.

Datta-Ray, who lives in a relatively affluent downtown neighbourhood and works in the hard-hit northwest corner of the city, has seen first hand the city’s divergent pandemic experiences.

Where she lives, the pandemic has been novel, almost festive, she said. “You wouldn’t even know that the virus is around.”

But in the city’s northwest, where infection rates are 10 times as high, most people aren’t able to work from home and public transit is crowded. “Those neighbourhoods feel the city in crisis.”

Neethan Shan, executive director of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, said governments need to put racial equity at the heart of any pandemic recovery plan.

“Universal programs aren’t going to be enough,” he said. “If you’re serious about racial equity you have to start looking at it.”

If you target the most vulnerable and most affected communities, he said, everyone will benefit.

“But if you just keep continuing with universal programs that are in some ways colour-blind, we’re not going to see the solutions that we need.”

Liben Gebremikael, executive director of the TAIBU Community Health Centre in Scarborough, said attention on Black communities is often driven by high-profile news events — such as the so-called “Summer of the Gun” in 2005 — which leads to cyclical but unsustained investment.

“We can’t really do systemic change with cyclical investment,” he said. “We have to have a long-term strategy, from the city, the province and the federal government, on how to address these injustices and inequities that are mostly impacting Indigenous and Black communities.”

Gebremikael said he’s hopeful the inequities laid bare by COVID-19 will garner enough attention for more substantial, long-term investment. He cited the provincial government agreeing to collect race-based data during the pandemic — after their initial reluctance — as an example of a step in the right direction.

“If we have evidence then we can really advocate for the resources and the policies and the strategies we need.”

Source: ‘A fight for the soul of the city’: Report shows how COVID-19 has deepened Toronto’s racial and economic divide

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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