ICYMI: Toronto’s marginalized communities disproportionately affected by coronavirus, data suggest

Better data on what we have seen worldwide:

COVID-19 has infected racialized and low-income people in Toronto at far higher rates than the general population outside of long-term care homes, data released by the city suggest.

Doctors, community organizations and public-health workers have long suspected that racialized people – especially those who are Black – have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The findings released Thursday by Toronto Public Health showed that despite making up 52 per cent of the population, racialized people accounted for 83 per cent of COVID-19 cases between mid-May and mid-July.

The data reveal health inequities that existed long before the pandemic and will continue to if governments don’t look to address the upstream causes, experts say.

“Racism essentially sets up whether you’re able to have a life in which you can protect yourself from risk for any disease, including COVID, or whether you are forced into exposing yourself to risk,” said Arjumand Siddiqi, the Canada Research Chair in population health equity.

According to the data, Black people had the highest share of COVID-19 cases (21 per cent), followed by South Asian or Indo-Caribbean (20 per cent), Southeast Asian (17 per cent), white (17 per cent), Arab, Middle Eastern or West Asian (11 per cent), Latin American (10 per cent) and East Asian (4 per cent). All groups except white and East Asian were overrepresented based on the size of their overall population. Black people had six times the rate of COVID-19 cases compared with white people, while Latin American as well as Arab, Middle Eastern or West Asian populations had nine times the rate.

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The data from Toronto Public Health do not include long-term care and retirement home residents, as these people are not asked about their race or their income. The data also did not include Indigenous identities. The data were collected by public-health officials between May 20 and July 16 and provided voluntarily.

Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, said targeted testing, improved communication and access to social supports – such as voluntary isolation sites for those infected with or exposed to COVID-19 – could address these stark inequities in the short term. But she emphasized the city must work to address the root causes.

“We need to focus on the social determinants of health, like affordable housing opportunities, access to employment and income supports and educational opportunities. And yes, we need to address systemic racism,” Dr. de Villa said.

Mayor John Tory said community organizations will be a key partner in identifying solutions.

“This includes engaging with local community groups to better understand risks and the concerns that residents in these areas have, so that we can work together with them to address those concerns,” Mr. Tory said.

Floydeen Charles-Fridal, the executive director of Caribbean African Canadian Social Services, said her organization, based in the northwest part of the city that’s home to one of its largest Black populations, does the sort of front-line work that has been chronically underfunded for years.

CAFCAN usually spends about $10,000 to $15,000 annually on food-related programming but instead spent nearly $40,000 in the first month of the pandemic on hot meals, food hampers and staff to prepare and deliver them. Food insecurity was already an issue in the neighbourhood but grew worse after lockdown-related job losses, Ms. Charles-Fridal said. A University of Toronto study published last fall found Black Canadians experience food insecurity at nearly twice the rate of white Canadians, even after adjusting for factors such as education, income and home ownership.

“It took COVID-19 and the murder of Black folks here and across the border for people to really understand how anti-Black racism is working,” Ms. Charles-Fridal said.

Studies have repeatedly shown that South Asians and Black people have much higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure than the general population. For people with one of these underlying conditions who become infected with COVID-19, there is an elevated risk for more severe outcomes, including death.

Michelle Westin, a senior analyst at Black Creek Community Health Centre, which serves neighbourhoods with some of the highest rates of poverty, said she was not at all surprised by the data.

“We know that we have community members that are living in crowded apartment buildings, people who are working in the service and factory industries, people who are underemployed so they don’t have paid sick days,” Ms. Westin said. “So they’re working in positions that are putting them at greater risk for catching COVID.”

In a report published after the Black Experiences in Healthcare Symposium held earlier this year in Toronto, organizers noted there were “disparities and inequities in health care access and delivery for racialized Canadians.”

Tracey Thompson, 52, experienced this first-hand. Ms. Thompson, who is Black, contracted COVID-19 in mid-March and still lives with serious long-term effects from the virus. She said she was turned away from the emergency room twice, and has not been able to see a doctor to get medication to relieve her symptoms, which are still present.

“I just haven’t been able to access health care in a reasonable fashion,” Ms. Thompson said. “I think that being Black and being a woman didn’t do me any favours in that.”

Toronto Public Health also reported Thursday that having a low income and living in crowded spaces were major risk factors for COVID-19: 27 per cent of cases were among those living in households of five or more, and 51 per cent of cases were among those living in low-income households.

The two are closely connected, Ms. Charles-Fridal said. “When people have low income what that also suggests is they may very well be in [public] housing and living in places where they cannot practice physical distancing.”

Earlier this month, a group of homeless people and activist organizations filed an application with the Superior Court calling a bylaw that bans tents and camping in city parks unconstitutional. Evicting people from parks, they said, would then push them into crowded communal spaces where they faced an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19.

How the pandemic is highlighting Canada’s class divide

Not surprising that the impact is greatest on those with precarious employment or low income. Hopefully some of the measures announced today will be effective in attenuating the impact:

While the pasta, beans and toilet paper were being cleared off the shelves of nearby supermarkets on a recent night, Ines Garcia was at home in her Toronto apartment, eating a meal of rice with corn and beef, all made with groceries purchased on sale in bulk before the novel coronavirus panic had truly taken hold of her city. She didn’t have the luxury of building a pandemic stockpile – she was worried about how she was going to pay rent in April.

Ms. Garcia, 54, lives in a subsidized apartment in the city’s Regent Park neighbourhood and her two part-time jobs support her teenaged children and her octogenarian mother. She’ll be missing a large chunk of her income when Ontario schools close for two weeks after March break, since one of her jobs is lunch supervisor at a school. She anticipates the other job, at a women’s clothing store, might abruptly end soon if the government expands orders for non-essential businesses to close.

“People are already living in poverty and then when you’re working part-time and you don’t have that cheque coming in, that makes it worse for all the people who depend on that cheque,” Ms. Garcia said.

The spread of the coronavirus has put a spotlight on the stark class divisions in Canada. Low-income Canadians and the agencies that serve them say directives given by public health officials and relief offered by the federal government are overlooking a huge swath of the population. How do you self-isolate when “home” is a crowded shelter? How do you take time off work when you have no paid sick days? How do you build up a stockpile of food and supplies when you struggle to afford groceries each week?

Many – including part-time workers such as Ms. Garcia, as well as many who are self-employed or part of the gig economy – don’t qualify for employment insurance. And access to paid leave for sickness or other reasons is limited for those with low incomes.

“It is immediately clear that lower-income workers are already substantially more likely to be taking leave that is unpaid – and are therefore far more likely to face the prospect of an unpaid quarantine,” said David Macdonald, an economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in a report published this week. His research found that those in the top income decile had 74 per cent of their leaves covered in 2019, while just 14 per cent of those in the lowest decile did.

“There’s a bit of a middle-class bias to all the interventions,” said Paul Taylor, the executive director of FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit devoted to food education.

And as panic gives rise to a sense of individualism – let me get a month’s supply of food for my family, let me find a nanny to look after my kids – “for folks with low incomes, they are really struggling to figure out, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t afford to stockpile food,'” Mr. Taylor said. “There’s no funding support available for those who are going to be struggling with access to childcare.”

An uptick in layoffs and reduced shifts have food banks bracing for an increase in demand and concern about how they’ll continue to operate, especially given a drop in donations as of late, says Kirstin Beardsley, the chief network services officer of Food Banks Canada.

“What we are hearing is that existing clients are very stressed about not being able to assemble two weeks’ worth of food should they need it,” she said.

Many food banks also feel strained because they rely heavily on volunteers, whose numbers have dropped following social distancing recommendations, Ms. Beardsley said. In response, they have been consolidating operations with small teams and using low-touch pickup systems.

Social distancing recommendations have also spelled financial peril for chef Sophia Banks, 40, and her partner. They have poured the past four months of time and funds into creating a product that was to have its debut at Vancouver’s Vegan Night Market on March 19, which has been indefinitely postponed. She had expected to make a few thousand dollars in sales.

“Right now, it’s kind of at the end where it’s like, okay, we have no money left,” she said. With no savings to pull from, she might normally pick up catering gigs, but with widespread event cancellations, no such opportunities exist.

“We’re all going to see our income just completely dry up from all of this,” she said. “This is going to be a huge crisis, like we’re gonna have hundreds of thousands of people in Canada unable to pay rent in a few weeks.”

Organizations who work with low-income earners or the precariously employed agree that a relief package in the form of cash transfers for individuals or families would be most beneficial to offset the current turmoil. In Japan, for example, the government gave out cash subsidies to cover lost wages for parents forced to care for their children because of school closures, or workers who had to self-quarantine at home.

That relief may be coming in Canada, but for those in the most dire situation – the homeless, many of whom struggle with mental illness and addictions – the greatest help would come from the government providing an emergency fund for shelters to increase spaces, said Rick Lees, the executive director at Winnipeg’s Main Street Project.

“There’s absolutely no logical system in place to deal with the most vulnerable and most marginalized,” he said. “While we’re telling people to not congregate in [groups of] greater than 250, or even 50, nobody has a plan for the 110 people that will sleep side by side in our shelter.”

In Toronto, the city announced Tuesday, the shelter system is temporarily expanding into empty municipal facilities that will allow for better social distancing between clients. If someone is being tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, they will not be allowed to enter the regular shelter system and instead be taken to an isolated space until they receive their results.

While she welcomed the city’s move to create more space in response to the pandemic, Patricia Mueller, the chair of the Toronto Shelter Network, said general directives from public health – like frequent and thorough hand washing, for example – can be challenging to implement.

She explained that alcohol-based sanitizer dispensers can’t be mounted in public spaces in all shelters because “there have been cases where clients have stolen it in desperation … and some people are afraid to take a shower because they have this paranoia that their things are going to be stolen, right? So we have to work within the realm of all of those issues with all of our clients.”

Source: theglobeandmail.com/canada/article…

Australia: Citizenship discount for migrant pensioners, widows scrapped

Migrant pensioners, veterans and widows who receive Centrelink payments will soon have to pay full price when applying for Australian citizenship after Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton removed a regulation that offered them a discounted price.

Most people pay a $285 fee when they apply for citizenship, but disadvantaged pensioners and widows have long been granted a concession rate of $20 or $40.

Mr Dutton lodged a legislative instrument on Thursday last week that removes the concession, effective from July 1. The Greens have already promised to attempt to overturn the regulation when parliament sits next week.

The change mostly affects those who hold a pensioner concession card and receive certain welfare payments, including Newstart, the aged pension, the disability support pension or parenting payments.

The Federation of Ethnic Communities, which represents migrant groups in Australia, is calling for the change to be reversed.

“This is a needless imposition,” chair Mary Patetsos told SBS News.

“It puzzles me why you would want to create a hurdle that makes a resident who is entitled to claim for citizenship choose between paying their bills and applying for citizenship,” she said.

Veterans with pensioner cards who receive income support payments – including payments for aged service, invalidity service or partner service – will also lose their discount, as will some widows who hold health care cards.

The changes will also capture those applying for citizenship a second time, who will now have to pay the full fare with each application.

SBS News asked Mr Dutton to comment on the matter but was referred to the Department of Home Affairs.

A spokesperson for the department said only three per cent of people who applied for citizenship via the entrance test – as opposed to those who became citizens by descent or adoption – paid a concession fee in the past 12 months.

“Australia’s citizenship application fees remain internationally competitive and among the lowest in OECD nations,” the spokesperson wrote.

“The Department is committed to ensuring that application fees remain compliant with the Australian Government Cost Recovery Guidelines.”

Greens move to overturn changes

The changes were introduced via a legislative instrument that amends the Australian Citizenship Regulation, meaning they did not require legislation to pass the parliament.

But the Senate can still move to disallow the motion and overturn it. Last month, the government backflipped on controversial changes to parent visa sponsorship rules after it became clear a disallowance motion was about to pass.

Greens senator Nick McKim said he would move a disallowance motion when parliament sits again next week and called on Labor and the crossbench to support him.

“It’s an incredibly small-minded and vindictive move by this government,” Senator McKim told SBS News on the phone from Hobart.

The senator questioned why the government would close the concessions when only a small number of applicants applied for a discount.

“If it’s correct that this only applies to about three per cent of applicants in the recent past, it begs the obvious question as to why in fact the government is moving forward.”

Ms Patetsos said the change was inconsistent with Australia’s approach to encourage migrants to join the broader community and would impact the most vulnerable applicants.

“We’ve always encouraged new arrivals and migrants to apply for citizenship as soon as they’re eligible and that encouragement shouldn’t be dependent on a capacity to pay,” she said.

Source: Citizenship discount for migrant pensioners, widows scrapped