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

A proposed development would see two four-storey affordable housing complexes erected on Adair Street in Armstrong, next to the Nor-Val Arena. (Google Maps)
Local tenants to be prioritized for Armstrong affordable housing project

Staff have drafted an expression of interest to find a developer to move forward with on the project

Cops for Kids riders will be spinning 30 feet in the air on scissor lifts at SaveOn Foods locations in Kelowna, Lake Country and West Kelowna Saturday, May 8, 2021. (File photo)
Cops reach new heights for Okanagan kids

Nor-Val Rentals is doing the heavy lifting Saturday in Kelowna, West Kelowna and Lake Country

A medical worker prepares vials of the COVID-19 vaccines, Chinese Sinopharm, left, Sputnik V, center, and Pfizer at a vaccine centre, in the Usce shopping mall in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, May 6, 2021. Serbian authorities are looking for incentives for people to boost vaccination that has slowed down in recent weeks amid widespread anti-vaccination and conspiracy theories in the Balkan nation. The government has also promised a payment of around 25 euros to everyone who gets vaccinated by the end of May. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
38 new COVID-19 cases, more than 335k vaccines administered in Interior Health

Interior Health also to start targeted vaccinations in high transmission neighbourhoods

FILE PHOTO
Second doses of COVID-19 vaccine will be available, as AstraZeneca supply runs low: Interior Health

Province expecting large volumes of Pfizer BioNTech as age-based cohort immunization program ramps up

Kiley and her sisters-in-law Jacqueline Olson and Heidi Routley will be participating in the Sleep Out: Home Edition event May 28, 2021. (Contributed)
North Okanagan trio to sleep rough to raise funds for homeless youth

Back to Earth team of Lavington aim to raise $5K in support of the cause

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Gord Judson steers his log truck down a forest service road, using two-way radio and call signals to mark his position for oncoming traffic. (B.C. Forest Safety Council)
Planning some B.C. wilderness fishing? Don’t catch a log truck

Remote recreation areas bracing for heavy pandemic pressure

Former University of British Columbia student Stephanie Hale, 22. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff Bassett
Human Rights Tribunal to hear complaint against UBC Okanagan for ‘mishandling’ sexual assault report

Stephanie Hale did not return to campus after the student she alleges attacked her was cleared of wrongdoing

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman’s restaurant is located in the tiny community of Field, which relies on tourism

Memorials have been set up to honour those who died during the Second World War. (Pixabay.com)
COLUMN: It’s time to stop making comparisons to Hitler

The deadliest, most destructive war in human history should not become a metaphor

A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start releasing neighbourhood-specific COVID numbers after data leak

Documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun show cases broken down by neighbourhoods

Kelowna seen from the top of Knox Mountain. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press Media file)
Accessibility concerns raised as Kelowna ponders banning vehicles from Knox Mountain

Knox Mountain Drive, which leads to two lookouts, has been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began

(Pixabay photo)
Cow-based wildfire mitigation pilot contended by Southeast Kelowna group

‘Targeted grazing’ program would see 50 cows deployed to 60-hectare parcel above Field Road

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix update B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, April 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count creeps up, seven more deaths

445 people in hospital, 157 in intensive care

Most Read