Alberta’s worst COVID-19 rates are in racialized communities, data show

As happens in most cities, given the poorer socio-economic conditions and housing, along with the fact that many are front-line workers who cannot work remotely:

The worst rates of COVID-19 infection in Alberta’s two largest cities are in areas with higher proportions of racialized people, including the northeastern corner of Calgary, where the per-capita number of cases is more than twice the provincial average.

The province has yet to publish detailed statistics on the relationship between race and COVID-19 infections, despite promising to track and release that type of information months ago. But Statistics Canada data show a relationship between high rates of COVID-19 infections and the proportion of people who identify as visible minorities. In northeastern Calgary, for example, 80 per cent of people were recorded in the census as non-white.

Premier Jason Kenney has singled out large multigenerational households and social gatherings among South Asian people. He was criticized for telling a local radio station on the weekend that a sharp increase in infections in northeast Calgary should be a “wake-up call” to follow public-health advice.

Arjumand Siddiqi, who holds the Canada Research Chair in population health equity and teaches at the University of Toronto, said data from places such as Toronto, Montreal and some American cities all point to the same conclusion: People of colour are more likely to get sick from COVID-19 because of their socio-economic status, not culture.

”This pattern of racialized people having the worst health outcomes relative to whites is something we see for almost every health outcome I can think of,” Dr. Siddiqi said.

“What we think is probably the primary driver of racial inequalities in COVID is who is doing essential-service work. That’s the trigger, because with COVID, you have to be outside to be exposed.”

Alberta has not reported neighbourhood-level data for COVID-19 infections, but divides each of the two major cities into more than a dozen health areas.

Calgary’s upper northeast area has by far the highest rates – for both active cases and the total number of infections since the pandemic began – in either city. It also has the highest proportion of people who identify as visible minorities, as well as the largest household size, the largest percentage of people who do not speak English and the largest number of recent immigrants.

The second highest-rates in the city are Calgary’s lower northeast, which also has the second highest proportion of visible minorities, at 56.2 per cent.

In Edmonton, the highest infection rates are also largely in areas with higher-than-average proportions of people who identify as visible minorities, although the relationship is not as stark.

For example, the Castle Downs and Northgate areas both have the highest rates of infections since the pandemic began and both have higher proportions of racialized people than the rest of the city. Mill Woods South and East has the second-highest proportion of people who identified as a visible minority and the area currently has the fourth-highest rate of active infections in the city.

Dr. Siddiqi said the theory that those higher rates are primarily linked to culture or social gatherings is misguided and not supported by the data.

“This is not a matter of individual choice and decision making,” she said. “People have to go to work.”

Mr. Kenney appeared on RedFM for an interview in which he talked about COVID-19 among South Asian people in northeastern Calgary. He referred to “a tradition to have big family gatherings” as he explained the outbreak in the area.

The Premier has since said he was not attempting to cast blame and that he recognizes the risks faced by South Asian and other racialized people, including taking on higher-risk front-line jobs.

“It is not a phenomenon unique to Alberta,” Mr. Kenney said on Wednesday.

“I think it’s most obviously connected to the issue of socio-economic status. Many newcomers, when they start their lives in Canada … they are typically starting out at lower levels of incomes and that often creates greater vulnerability to situations like this.”

He said the province is responding by increasing support for people who need to isolate, including by offering them a place to stay outside the home, and is also looking at how to help overcome issues such as language barriers and transportation.

Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said her office has been collecting data on race and COVID-19 infections and is looking into how best to release it.

Aimée Bouka, a Calgary doctor who has written about the relationship between race and COVID-19, said the province appears to have very little data about how racialized people are getting sick. She pointed out the province’s contact-tracing system has fallen apart, making it impossible to know what is happening during the recent spike in cases.

”It’s even more shocking and surprising to have it brought up publicly with such a level of confidence,” she said.

“How come none of us can actually see this? Where is the data that really links what he says is cultural behaviours to the actual spread of COVID-19?”

Dr. Bouka said narrowing in on cultural factors ignores a growing body of evidence that working and living conditions are driving infections in racialized populations. She also points out there have been many examples – across cultures and racial backgrounds – of people flouting the rules by holding parties or other events.

Jay Chowdhury, who lives in northeastern Calgary, became infected with COVID-19 at a prayer meeting in early March, before the lockdowns and restrictions that swept the country in the spring. He was in a medically induced coma for more than three weeks and is still recovering.

Mr. Chowdhury agreed that many in the area are in jobs that place them at higher risk.

“The people living in [northeastern Calgary] are people working at the airport, working at the hospital, working at McDonald’s,” he said.

“These are people who don’t have a job where they can work from home. … They are hard hit because they have to be physically present.”

Still, he said he has heard of instances of people flouting the guidance around social events, which he attributed to a “meet and greet” culture. He said it appears that South Asian people he knows in the area are getting more serious about following the new restrictions, including a recent ban on all gatherings.

Amanpreet Singh Gill, president of the Dashmesh Culture Centre, a large Sikh Gurdwara in northeastern Calgary, said people who attend his Gurdwara have been diligent about following public-health advice. Many weddings have been cancelled or changed to respect limits on gatherings and recent Diwali celebrations were significantly scaled back.

George Chahal, who represents the area on city council, said he viewed the Premier’s comments on the weekend as targeting the South Asian population. Mr. Chahal said work and housing appeared to be the primary factors, adding people in the area are taking the pandemic seriously.

“There is a lot of fear out there,” he said. “People are worried about their families.”


Gary Mason on Premier Kenney’s singling out of the South Asian community and his avoidance of recognizing the impact of socio-economic factors (although cultural factors also play a role):

If there’s one community that has been singled out for its role in the spread of COVID-19 in this country, it is the South Asian.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stirred controversy last week when he delivered what he called a “wake-up call” to South Asians in his province. In an interview with South Asian radio station RED 106.7 FM, he said there had been a much higher rate of the virus among this particular group, and linked the phenomenon to “big family gatherings” and “social functions” in their homes.

Likewise, South Asians have been the focus of attention in the B.C. city of Surrey, where they are the dominant minority and where there has been a disproportionately higher number of cases of the virus than elsewhere in Metro Vancouver.

The same applies to the Ontario region of Peel, where South Asians make up 31.6 per cent of the population, but have accounted for 45 per cent of COVID-19 cases.

So what gives? Are South Asians flagrantly disregarding government orders to help prevent the spread of the virus? Are they putting culture ahead of public-health security? Or does something else explain the numbers?

While there have assuredly been members of the South Asian community who have flouted public-health edicts, there’s no evidence that their numbers are significantly greater, percentage wise, than those in the broader population who have done the same.

Yes, weddings, spiritual holidays, music nights and celebrations of life are often enormous, sacred happenings in South Asian culture. Over the summer, for instance, B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said some of these events had helped accelerate the spread of the virus in Surrey, and she called for restraint.

The message seemed to have been heard: Last month, despite broad concern about the public-health consequences of the major five-day Indian festival of Diwali, there were no reported instances of a dramatic surge in the virus in those areas with high populations of South Asians.

The more likely cause of higher-than-normal rates of COVID-19 among South Asians is their socioeconomic status. Many occupy low-paying, public-facing jobs that are essential to the economy, from truck drivers and hospital workers to cleaners and aides in long-term care homes. They rely on public transit to get to and from work. And when they do get home, it’s often to a house that includes multiple generations of a family. There can be 10 or more people sleeping under the same roof, sometimes because of tradition, and sometimes out of financial necessity.

The fact that South Asians are disproportionately suffering the consequences of the disease is also the result of another ugly reality: Racialized people in this country have worse health outcomes than white Canadians. They often have higher rates of the kind of underlying conditions that the virus preys on: heart disease, diabetes and obesity among them.

And many new immigrants, from South Asia or elsewhere, don’t speak English. Public-health information related to COVID-19 has often only been made available in English and French, and not in languages such as Punjabi or Hindi. That can come at a cost.

While Mr. Kenney later acknowledged that some of the occupations held by South Asians put them more directly in the path of the virus, the scolding tone of his warning to the community did not sit well with many. It just helps perpetuate a false narrative: that an irresponsible minority is to blame for the whole province’s high COVID-19 numbers.

There is also the rank hypocrisy of it all. This is the same Premier who effectively gave a pass to hundreds of mostly white anti-mask protesters in Calgary, but has now deemed gatherings in the homes of South Asians to be the real problem.

The fact that the death rate from the virus is 25 per cent higher in neighbourhoods with large South Asian communities should concern us all – our politicians and public-health officials in particular. But the response shouldn’t be condemnation. It should be investigating what the root causes behind the numbers are, and what can be done about it.

What can we do, for instance, about low-paid workers who might feel sick but go to work anyway because they won’t otherwise have money to pay their rent? What can be done about the dismal state of our overwhelmed contact-tracing systems, which are failing those whose jobs put them most at risk of contact?


Lastly, second year medical student Sharan Aulakh takes a similar tack:

COVID-19 cases soar in Alberta, with the province now accounting for nearly 25 per cent of all active cases in Canada, Premier Jason Kenney appeared on a popular South Asian radio station in Calgary, calling for the South Asian community to do more to bring down surging infection rates.

According to Kenney, the South Asian community is responsible for the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in Alberta, zeroing in on northeast Calgary, an area with a significant South Asian population, for having a particularly high number of COVID-19 cases. While Kenney tried to assure listeners that he doesn’t mean to blame or target any particular individual or community, his message misses the mark.

While the community is diverse, a large proportion of Albertans of South Asian descent are employed in essential frontline services and do not have the privilege of being able to work from home. They are grocery-store workers, transit operators, and truck drivers; they are the nurses, health-care aides, and support staff in clinics, hospitals, and long-term care homes. Along with an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, many have limited employment benefits and access to compensated sick leave. South Asians are also more likely to live in multigenerational housing. Often, this is a result of financial constraints that are more likely to be faced by recent immigrants. Many within the South Asian community are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response. For the premier to selectively call out and chastise the South Asian community for seemingly shirking their responsibility in this pandemic betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the different structural factors that shape how COVID-19 disproportionately impacts certain communities. It further perpetuates unfair and harmful narratives of the community.

In reality, the reason for the rise in COVID-19 rates in Alberta over the past month has been the Kenney government’s relative inaction in the face of a worsening pandemic. Kenney’s refusal to implement appropriate public health restrictions is the reason for the rapid spread of the virus, not South Asian culture.

Alberta is currently the only jurisdiction in Canada that has not introduced a provincewide mask mandate. Even in the face of a broken contact tracing system, Kenney refuses to adopt the federal contact tracing app, citing the monstrous challenge of deleting the provincial app and downloading a different one. When Alberta physicians called for a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown to limit the strain of the virus on the health-care system, Kenney responded with the closure of group yoga and spin classes.

Over the weekend, hundreds of maskless Albertans took to the streets to participate in anti-mask demonstrations in Edmonton, Calgary, and Red Deer. Even though current provincial regulations limit outdoor gatherings to 10 people, Calgary police officers watched from a distance. While Kenney delivered a reprimanding “wake-up call” to South Asians, threatening the community with policing and monetary fines, he refused to condemn these anti-mask rallies. It is clear that for Kenney, the right to protest trumps Albertans’ right to safety and health.

Rather than scapegoat a community that has done much to combat the COVID-19 pandemic — from staffing hospitals to cleaning schools to driving buses — the provincial government would far better serve Albertans by prioritizing a pandemic response based on public health, not on ideology. While efforts to combat the virus are our collective responsibility, it starts at the top.

Sharan Aulakh is a second-year medical student at the University of Alberta with a background in public health.

Source: Kenney should blame his inaction for COVID surge, not South Asian community

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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