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If there’s one community that has been singled out for its role in the spread of COVID-19 in this country, it is the South Asian.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stirred controversy last week when he delivered what he called a “wake-up call” to South Asians in his province. In an interview with South Asian radio station RED 106.7 FM, he said there had been a much higher rate of the virus among this particular group, and linked the phenomenon to “big family gatherings” and “social functions” in their homes.

Likewise, South Asians have been the focus of attention in the B.C. city of Surrey, where they are the dominant minority and where there has been a disproportionately higher number of cases of the virus than elsewhere in Metro Vancouver.

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The same applies to the Ontario region of Peel, where South Asians make up 31.6 per cent of the population, but have accounted for 45 per cent of COVID-19 cases.

So what gives? Are South Asians flagrantly disregarding government orders to help prevent the spread of the virus? Are they putting culture ahead of public-health security? Or does something else explain the numbers?

While there have assuredly been members of the South Asian community who have flouted public-health edicts, there’s no evidence that their numbers are significantly greater, percentage wise, than those in the broader population who have done the same.

Yes, weddings, spiritual holidays, music nights and celebrations of life are often enormous, sacred happenings in South Asian culture. Over the summer, for instance, B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said some of these events had helped accelerate the spread of the virus in Surrey, and she called for restraint.

The message seemed to have been heard: Last month, despite broad concern about the public-health consequences of the major five-day Indian festival of Diwali, there were no reported instances of a dramatic surge in the virus in those areas with high populations of South Asians.

The more likely cause of higher-than-normal rates of COVID-19 among South Asians is their socioeconomic status. Many occupy low-paying, public-facing jobs that are essential to the economy, from truck drivers and hospital workers to cleaners and aides in long-term care homes. They rely on public transit to get to and from work. And when they do get home, it’s often to a house that includes multiple generations of a family. There can be 10 or more people sleeping under the same roof, sometimes because of tradition, and sometimes out of financial necessity.

The fact that South Asians are disproportionately suffering the consequences of the disease is also the result of another ugly reality: Racialized people in this country have worse health outcomes than white Canadians. They often have higher rates of the kind of underlying conditions that the virus preys on: heart disease, diabetes and obesity among them.

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And many new immigrants, from South Asia or elsewhere, don’t speak English. Public-health information related to COVID-19 has often only been made available in English and French, and not in languages such as Punjabi or Hindi. That can come at a cost.

While Mr. Kenney later acknowledged that some of the occupations held by South Asians put them more directly in the path of the virus, the scolding tone of his warning to the community did not sit well with many. It just helps perpetuate a false narrative: that an irresponsible minority is to blame for the whole province’s high COVID-19 numbers.

There is also the rank hypocrisy of it all. This is the same Premier who effectively gave a pass to hundreds of mostly white anti-mask protesters in Calgary, but has now deemed gatherings in the homes of South Asians to be the real problem.

The fact that the death rate from the virus is 25 per cent higher in neighbourhoods with large South Asian communities should concern us all – our politicians and public-health officials in particular. But the response shouldn’t be condemnation. It should be investigating what the root causes behind the numbers are, and what can be done about it.

What can we do, for instance, about low-paid workers who might feel sick but go to work anyway because they won’t otherwise have money to pay their rent? What can be done about the dismal state of our overwhelmed contact-tracing systems, which are failing those whose jobs put them most at risk of contact?

That’s where our focus should be. Scapegoating specific people for our virus numbers won’t do any Canadians any good at all.

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