People paint Black Lives Matter if English and French on Ste. Catherine Street Tuesday July 14, 2020 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

People paint Black Lives Matter if English and French on Ste. Catherine Street Tuesday July 14, 2020 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Race-based data needed to make sound COVID vaccine, policy decisions: B.C. prof

Report finds COVID deaths in Canada are highest in neighbourhoods with more visible minorities

Deaths due to COVID-19 have been highest in neighbourhoods made up of at least 25 per cent visible minorities, according to a report from Statistics Canada.

The data, released late last month, took a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood look at pandemic deaths across the country between March and July. In that time period, there were 8,796 deaths in Canada, with the majority in Quebec with 5,806. Ontario was second with 2,550, B.C. third with 187 and Alberta fourth with 179.

June Francis, an associate professor of marketing, business and society at the SFU Beedie School of Business, said the results are not surprising.

“This data is very valuable, however, the data that should have been collected from the beginning, at an individual level, would have been the ideal data,” Francis told Black Press Media by phone.

B.C. health officials have been pushed over the months to begin collecting data on race, similarly as they do on age and gender, of people who are infected with and die as a result of COVID-19. However, as of early December, the twelfth month since the pandemic began to hit B.C., such data is not collected.

In the Statistics Canada study, which is unaffiliated with the B.C. government, researchers divided neighbourhoods into different categories based how much of their population was made up of visible minorities: less than 1 per cent, from 1 per cent to less than 10 per cent, from 10 per cent to less than 25 per cent and 25 per cent and over.

The data showed that neighbourhoods with more than 25 per cent visible minorities had a mortality rate of 34.5 per cent per 100,000, compared to 27.3 per 100,000 for neighbourhoods made up of 10 to 25 per cent of visible minorities, 12.7 per 100,000 for neighbourhoods between one and 10 cent visible minorities and 16.9 per 100,000 for less than one per cent.

Francis said that all that was possible now was to infer conclusions from this neighbourhood level data.

This data, she said “points to this alarming thing, that we suspected and now it’s confirmed” and we’ve not paid attention to it.

While B.C. health officials have cited the difficulties of collecting and cataloguing race-based data in their COVID-19 systems, Francis thinks that’s not the only reason.

“There’s a tremendous resistance to acknowledging that Canada is not a ‘colourblind society,’” she said. The first step she’d like to see is for public health to acknowledge this, in the same way officials acknowledge that age and sex can affect how disease strikes.

“We collect data on people’s age. Why? Because we know, and suspect, that for a variety of factors… age may be an important thing to know in order to know how to treat and prevent diseases among certain groups,” Francis said.

“We’re resistant to the idea that race also contributes in this way because we have held onto this idea that systemic racism in health and other institutions does not exist.”

Statistics Canada found that although deaths in B.C. were lower overall when compared to Ontario and Quebec, the age-standardized mortality rate was more than 10 times higher in neighbourhoods with the highest proportions of visible minorities than in those with the lowest.

The data released by the agency is not the first to point to higher mortality rates based on race and socioeconomic differences. Statistics Canada note that many visible minorities have “higher poverty rates and are over-represented in socio-economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods,” as well as more likely to live in multi-generational households and to work at jobs that put them at higher risk.

But Francis said that while the collection and interpretation of race-based data can save lives, it’s important to do so correctly. She cited the history of the census, “the basic idea behind the data collection was to protect white lives.”

“Data was collected in a way that has for sure historically disadvantaged certain people,” she said. “We would like, as racialized communities, to be part of the process to ensure, for example, how that data is asked.”

The monthly release of data by local health area does not make things better, Francis noted. Local health area data varies around the province, with Vancouver being divided up into six areas, while large swathes of less populated areas in northern B.C. are divided into few regions

“We know this is likely to be the truth… and yet our government is releasing data in the most unhelpful way and of course we’re all drawing inferences,” she said, pointing to blame that has been cast at the South Asian community of Surrey for higher rates of the coronavirus in the area.

“And yet, there is no public health initiative. It’s like if they don’t tell us, they won’t have to do anything.”

As the world inches towards a COVID-19 vaccine, Francis said that it’s more important than ever to look at how race affects a person’s risk of dying from the virus. B.C. is expecting to begin vaccinating people in the first weeks of 2021 with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. In total, Canada is expected to receive an initial supply six million doses, although there is no word of how many B.C. will get.

So far, provincial health officials have pointed to long-term care residents, staff and hospital workers as the first people who receive the vaccine. But who comes next?

“How are they going to make that decision? We [racialized people] may end up on the bottom of that as well,” she said, because there is such limited data on how the pandemic disproportionally affects them.

READ MORE: B.C. Black-based group starts COVID-19 fund, urges officials to collect race-based data


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusRacial injustice

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

This year’s PNE Prize Home is to be built in-place, in South Surrey. (pneprizehome.ca)
PNE’s first-ever in-place grand prize home to be built in South Surrey

Pandemic-related touring options prompts break from tradition

South Surrey nurse Brittany Williams has been involved with the Burn Camp since 2013. (Contributed photo)
Burn camp ‘really puts things in perspective,’ says South Surrey nurse

Brittany Williams’ experiences hoped to boost Hometown Heroes Lottery fundraiser

Motorists breaking travel rules can be fined $230 for failing to follow instructions or $575 if the reason for travel violates the essential travel health order, at this Highway 3 check area near Manning Park. Photo RCMP
RCMP begin stopping drivers on BC highways – checkpoint at Manning Park

Four checkpoints are set up Thursday, May 6 around the province

Dr. Bonnie Henry B.C.'s provincial health officer, updates the COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, April 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
Province ‘ramping up’ COVID-19 vaccination effort in hard-hit Surrey

‘Door-to-door’ registration program in the works, says Dr. Bonnie Henry

Serena Deol, Jaspreet Deol, Madison Sweeney and Tanveer Pannu (pictured clockwise from top left) are Surrey United soccer players recruited to the University of Fraser Valley. (submitted photos)
Surrey United soccer quartet sign to play for UFV Cascades

Three of the university’s recruits are Panorama Ridge Secondary students

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

A worker rides a bike at a B.C. Hydro substation in Vancouver, on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
BC Hydro report raises safety concerns as pandemic prompts jump in yard work

Incidents involving weekend tree trimmers, gardeners and landscapers have risen 30% since the pandemic hit

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
B.C.’s first electric school bus making the rounds in Victoria suburbs

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

The Aquilini Investment Group has agreed to a proposed contract of five years to run the Abbotsford Centre. (File photo)
Proposal to run Abbotsford Centre offered to Canucks ownership group

Planned five-year contract to cost city $750K annually, starting Jan. 1, 2022

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

Victoria police say the photo they circulated of an alleged cat thief was actually a woman taking her own cat to the vet. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Photo of suspected cat thief released by Victoria police actually just woman with her pet

Police learned the she didn’t steal Penelope the cat, and was actually taking her cat to the vet

Most Read