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Jay Chowdhury, who had a severe case of COVID-19 this spring and is now back at work, outside of his office in Calgary, Alta., on Dec. 2, 2020.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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.

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But experts say people in those neighbourhoods are more likely to find themselves in situations where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is high. A significant proportion of racialized people work front-line jobs in hospitals, long-term care homes and the service sector; rely on public transit to get to work; and often return home to crowded housing.

COVID-19 AND VISIBLE MINORITIES

CALGARY

Cumulative case rate per

100,000 (as of Nov. 28)

1,000

2,000

3,000

Calgary-

Upper NE:

3,567

Calgary-

Lower NE:

2,217

Visible minority as percentage

of population (2016)

20

40

60

80%

Calgary-

Upper NE:

80.1%

Calgary-

Lower NE:

56.2%

EDMONTON

Cumulative case rate per

100,000 (as of Nov. 28)

1,000

2,000

3,000

Edmonton-NE: 2,384

Edmonton-

Northgate:

2,667

Edmonton-

Castle Downs:

2,724

Edmonton-

Mill Woods

South & East:

2,056

Visible minority as percentage

of population (2016)

20

40

60

80%

Edmonton-NE: 36.6%

Edmonton-

Castle Downs:

41.3%

Edmonton-

Mill Woods

South & East:

51.4%

Edmonton-Rutherford: 52%

chen wang and murat yükselir / the globe and

mail, source: GOVERNMENT OF ALBERTA

COVID-19 AND VISIBLE MINORITIES

CALGARY

Cumulative case rate per 100,000 (as of Nov. 28)

1,000

2,000

3,000

Calgary-

Upper NE:

3,567

Calgary-

Lower NE:

2,217

Visible minority as percentage of population (2016)

20

40

60

80%

Calgary-

Upper NE:

80.1%

Calgary-

Lower NE:

56.2%

EDMONTON

Cumulative case rate per 100,000 (as of Nov. 28)

1,000

2,000

3,000

Edmonton-NE: 2,384

Edmonton-

Northgate:

2,667

Edmonton-

Castle Downs:

2,724

Edmonton-

Mill Woods

South & East:

2,056

Visible minority as percentage of population (2016)

20

40

60

80%

Edmonton-NE: 36.6%

Edmonton-

Castle Downs:

41.3%

Edmonton-

Mill Woods

South & East:

51.4%

Edmonton-Rutherford: 52%

chen wang and murat yükselir / the globe and mail,

source: GOVERNMENT OF ALBERTA

COVID-19 AND VISIBLE MINORITIES

Cumulative case rate per

100,000 (as of Nov. 28)

Visible minority as percentage

of population (2016)

1,000

2,000

3,000

20

40

60

80%

CALGARY

Calgary-

Upper NE:

3,567

Calgary-

Upper NE:

80.1%

Calgary-

Lower NE:

2,217

Calgary-

Lower NE:

56.2%

EDMONTON

Edmonton-NE: 2,384

Edmonton-NE: 36.6%

Edmonton-

Northgate:

2,667

Edmonton-

Castle Downs:

2,724

Edmonton-

Castle Downs:

41.3%

Edmonton-

Mill Woods

South & East:

51.4%

Edmonton-

Mill Woods

South & East:

2,056

Edmonton-Rutherford: 52%

chen wang and murat yükselir / the globe and mail, source: GOVERNMENT OF ALBERTA

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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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