We started the South Asian COVID Task Force because Ontario failed to address inequities. In a short time, we’ve seen more people get tested

Good initiative:

Despite the best of intentions, one-size-fits-all public health interventions are ineffective and in fact leave vulnerable communities exposed. To address the spread happening in South Asian communities, like Peel Region in Ontario, the South Asian COVID Task Force has formed as a grassroots initiative to put a spotlight on the specific needs of our communities and the structural barriers in place that are continuing to drive the pandemic.

Now, we’re calling on provincial and local governments to work with us to increase capacity on robust contact tracing, isolation, testing and support for communities that are in need. Time is of the essence.

Yes, the vaccine is here, with the Pfizer vaccine recently being approved for use in Canada, but we are still months away from the vaccine being available to most Ontarians. The early strategy includes giving health-care workers and those living in congregate settings priority, leaving many of the hot spot regions untouched. In addition, introducing the vaccine into areas of uncontrolled outbreak will make it far less effective at preventing death and morbidity.

Unfortunately, despite ample time to prepare and organize, there are countless examples across Canada of reluctance to take urgent action to provide basic public health interventions like contact tracing, mandatory indoor masking, and testing.

Alberta dragged its feet for weeks while its ICUs filled and case positivity soared throughout the entire province. Manitoba has imposed strict restrictions for the holidays, but not before the deaths of 176 residents and more than 1,400 casesplagued its personal care homes and assisted living centres. In Ontario, community spread runs rampant in some racialized communities where testing access has been especially limited.

In a period of just three weeks, the South Asian COVID Task Force has mobilized and grown into an organization that identifies community needs, creates (and disseminates) culturally appropriate educational materials, and advocates for what South Asian communities need on the ground to curb the spread. We serve to shine a light on inequities that might not be obvious in a top-down structure and to build trust with South Asian communities.

Organizations like ours need to exist because public health authorities can only address what they see. Especially since up until recently, Public Health of Ontario was not collecting any COVID-19 race-based data. If you don’t see the problem, you can’t address the problem.

In our short existence, we have aggressively promoted community testing, created social media posts in various South Asian languages that have gone viral, busted myths that are rampant in our communities, and advocated for the creation of an additional pilot testing site in North East Brampton — where in one neighbourhood last month, nearly one in five COVID-19 tests were positive. That’s five times the provincial average.

And we are not alone in our advocacy. Other culture and faith-based groups are mobilizing on the ground to do the same work we are doing in their communities across the country.

As Adalsteinn Brown, the dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto, said about the prevention gap last week, there “are long-standing structural factors here … that drive these much higher rates of infection.” While “one-size-fits-all” public health interventions are unlikely to help, tailored community action can show some much needed success.

Rightly so, we’ve been called upon to help address the disproportionate impact COVID has had on South Asians. As physicians, health-care workers, business owners and community members, we are working tirelessly off the corners of our desks to make a difference because we know time means lives. We’ve created distribution channels, built trust and identified areas of great need.

But critical to the success of a community, grassroots organization like the South Asian COVID Task Force is the willingness of local authorities to listen and act quickly when we ring the alarm.

One critical example of this is creating testing capacity in Peel Region. Our media push for South Asians to get tested in Brampton has worked, but we’ve created demand that’s outpaced current infrastructure. It takes up to seven days to get an appointment now, with minimal walk-in availability. Multi-generational home dwellers still can’t easily isolate for that long. And the financial pressures to go to work in spite of illness remains a nagging threat to many families.

A great case in point of how things can work collaboratively is with the local health authorities in Peel, who are working with us to increase testing capabilities. Regardless of the lockdown, without more testing capacity, surveillance measures are inadequate. Specifically, we are working together to: extend the hours of existing community sites, acknowledge the barriers of online booking and allow for walk-in appointments to occur, and add staffing who can speak in locally prevalent languages — like Punjabi.

Similarly with vaccine rollout, we have been anticipating the potential challenges in our communities: vaccine hesitancy, religious issues with receiving certain vaccines, prioritizing elderly living in multi-generational homes, and identifying barriers in language and accessibility. Whether it’s building a ride-share program, staffing mobile health units or translating resources into multiple languages and disseminating it, we are here to help address these structural barriers.

We can’t do this alone. We, and organizations like ours, need our governments and public health authorities to work with us, and with the same urgency, drive and motivation to provide the lifesaving public health infrastructure and funding we so badly need at this moment in time.

It’s important to remember that, for some communities in need, the time to act aggressively was yesterday. The pandemic is a multi-front battle and we all need to step up and do our part.

Source: We started the South Asian COVID Task Force because Ontario failed to address inequities. In a short time, we’ve seen more people get tested

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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