Black people and other racial minorities are overrepresented in the Toronto neighbourhoods hit hardest by the coronavirus, according to new data that also reaffirm the role of poverty and overcrowded housing in the city’s epidemic.
In the areas with the highest rates of known coronavirus infections, Black people make up 18 per cent of the population – even though they account for just 9 per cent of the city’s population.
Torontonians of Latin American, South Asian and Southeast Asian descent are also overrepresented in pockets of the city pummelled by the virus. Conversely, people of East Asian descent and white people are underrepresented in neighbourhoods with the highest infection rates, Toronto Public Health found in an analysis released Thursday.
“To put it bluntly, this is structural racism,” said Joe Cressy, the city councillor who chairs Toronto’s Board of Health. “The social determinants of health – that’s your race, your income, your housing status – have always determined who gets sick and who stays healthy. COVID is just making that painfully visible.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the world, the virus that causes it has tended to prey on the most vulnerable. Outside of nursing homes, that means poor people who do essential work and live in overcrowded housing.
Canada’s largest city is no different. When Toronto Public Health mapped “sporadic” coronavirus cases – those unconnected to outbreaks in long-term care or other congregate settings – it found the areas with the highest infection rates also had high rates of poverty, racialized residents and inadequate housing according to 2016 census data.
The analysis released Thursday did not include any of the individual-level racial data that Toronto Public Health began collecting in May, but Liz Corson, the health unit’s supervisor of surveillance and epidemiology, told the health board Thursday that preliminary reports from case investigators “support these findings illustrating COVID-19′s disproportionate effect on specific racialized groups.”
Mr. Cressy said he expects individual-level data on race and COVID-19 in Toronto to be made public before the end of July.
The data released Thursday looked only at sporadic coronavirus infections and admissions to hospital, not sporadic deaths. There were too few deaths outside of institutional outbreak settings to draw conclusions, Ms. Corson said.
Unsuitable housing was also associated with increased coronavirus infection rates. In areas with the highest rates of household crowding, case counts averaged 568 per 100,000 people. In areas with the lowest rates of household crowding, that figure was 144 per 100,000 people.
With that in mind, the Toronto Board of Health unanimously approved a call on Thursday for all three levels of government to fund voluntary quarantine spaces for people who test positive but don’t have the space at home to self-isolate. The proposal, which didn’t include a price tag, is modelled on programs in Chicago and New York that offer hotel rooms and meals to low-income people who fear they’ll spread the virus to their relatives or roommates.
Toronto is already providing similar quarantine accommodations to the homeless population.
Mr. Cressy said Toronto hopes to make the new voluntary isolation spaces available “as soon as possible.” The federal government has signalled a willingness to help fund the initiative, he added, but the Ontario government has not.
Julie O’Driscoll, a spokeswoman for Steve Clark, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said by e-mail that the province has not received a formal proposal from the city nor been involved in discussions on funding such an initiative.
Camille Orridge, a senior fellow at the Wellesley Institute, an urban-health think tank, said nobody should be surprised that the coronavirus seems to have affected some racial groups more than others.
As an example, she pointed to the lag in providing personal protective equipment in high-risk settings such as nursing homes, food-processing plants and factories, where many of the workers are racialized.
“I wish there was more focus on what we’re going to do after COVID,” she added. “Minimum wage? Affordable housing? Benefits? Full-time employment? Those are all the things these populations have been denied or have not had access to that culminate here [in the pandemic.]”
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