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Long-standing inequities in education, housing and employment in Nova Scotia’s Black communities have been amplified by COVID-19, according to community leaders who are trying to collect better race-based data on the pandemic.

Those same issues have left African Nova Scotians vulnerable to misinformation about the disease, said David Haase, with the Health Association of African Canadians, or HAAC.

“When COVID came along, we recognized that there was misinformation, mainly on social media, that the community was seeing and absorbing,” Mr. Haase said during a recent interview. “Things like, ‘Black people are not as easily infected,’ which is the opposite to the reality, we realized.”

The past two years have been particularly difficult for the province’s Black community, many of whom are descendants of American Loyalists who fled to Nova Scotia during the 1780s in response to the American Revolution.

John Ariyo, director of equality and engagement with the province, said in an interview last week, “COVID has actually uncovered some of the inequalities in our communities when it comes to Black residents.”

Data from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia indicates that from February, 2020, to February, 2022, the number of people of African descent experiencing homelessness in the Halifax region rose to 93 people from 59.

Ingrid Waldron, a professor in the humanities department at McMaster University, has been working with Dalhousie University to explore the pandemic’s effects on African Nova Scotians and to build a culturally specific response plan for future major health crises.

“Many of these Black communities in Nova Scotia are historic communities that are rural or semirural and they don’t, in some cases, have a lot of amenities,” she said.

As a part of her study, she helped conduct an online survey in January, 2021, to explore rates of COVID-19 infection in the majority Black communities of North Preston and East Preston, as well as the kinds of health-care services the residents needed at the time.

“The fact that they live in rural or isolated communities has everything to do with colonialism and how they came to Nova Scotia,” she said in a recent interview.

“When they came here as descendants of American Black Loyalists it’s not like they had a lot of choice where they went. They were directed at specific places, and many of those places lacked resources from the get-go. That, to me, compounds the poverty and inequality that they have faced.”

The earlier days of the pandemic in some Black communities were marked by stigmatization, Prof. Waldron said, especially following comments from chief medical officer Robert Strang.

During a COVID-19 update on April 7, 2020, Dr. Strang spoke of temporary assessment centres that had been set up in three predominantly Black communities, where there were concerns of “increased disease activity.”

“Unfortunately, there are groups in these communities that are – because of their willful not following the requirements to minimize social gatherings, to stop unnecessary social interactions – a key piece of what is driving the disease within these communities,” Dr. Strang told reporters.

Following those comments, Prof. Waldron said members of those communities began to reach out and encourage people to get tested, a phenomenon she sought to explore in her study.

Prof. Waldron said she expects the study will be complete by June, when she plans to present the findings to health officials.

Both Mr. Haase and Prof. Waldron said a significant issue preventing authorities from gaining a better understanding of how the pandemic has affected Black communities is a lack of race-based health-care data.

It’s something HAAC has been asking of the provincial government for several years, Mr. Haase said.

Last April, former premier Iain Rankin announced creation of a working group that would help with race-based data collection. The new Progressive Conservative government has said it would begin the collection process this spring, allowing residents to share information when they apply for or renew their health cards.

The provincial Office of Equity and Anti-Racism Initiatives said in a statement, “Race-based data collection is part of the government’s health equity framework to help improve equity, inclusion and diversity in health care and address racism.”

Mr. Ariyo said the work of his department is also aimed at guiding government officials to create a sense of equity in the health-care system for all residents, including the African Nova Scotian community.

“We have to do more when it comes to public trust we need to be better in terms of communicating information, engaging with groups, grassroots associations, making sure that folks can also get that information out to their own people,” he said. “We cannot (keep) doing the same thing and expecting different results 40 years from now.”

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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