Editorial

Case counts, test positivity rates, death tolls and vaccine doses — numbers seem to rule everything in our pandemic world, yet some figures appear to carry more weight than others.

Case counts, test positivity rates, death tolls and vaccine doses — numbers seem to rule everything in our pandemic world, yet some figures appear to carry more weight than others.

Earlier this week, the province released a long-awaited report on the impact COVID-19 is having on racialized communities in Manitoba. Health-care workers in May 2020 started collecting data on the race, ethnicity and indigeneity of people who had tested positive for the virus, with the government proudly announcing, at the time, that this was the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so.

In Manitoba, Filipino, African and South Asian residents bear brunt of COVID-19 infection rates

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Mely Dela Cruz, a home care aide, takes precautions and wears proper PPE while she works. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)
Mely Dela Cruz, a home care aide, takes precautions and wears proper PPE while she works. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 7:22 PM Mar. 1, 2021

For the past 15 years, Mely Dela Cruz has been looking after seniors in their homes, and she didn't stop when COVID-19 started to spread.

The home-care aide has worked throughout the pandemic, meticulously donning her personal protective gear and asking her clients COVID-19 screening questions before she goes into their homes.

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Yet it took 10 months for that data to be released publicly, and officials seem to have done little with the information during that time.

The report shows Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Racialized people represent 51 per cent of COVID-19 infections, while making up only 35 per cent of the province’s total population. African, Indigenous, Filipino and South Asian residents in particular are over-represented in the data.

The results, sadly, are not surprising. From the United States to the United Kingdom, BIPOC communities have been hit hardest by the virus and have suffered worse outcomes and more deaths than white populations. The culprit, one must reasonably conclude, is systemic racism.

The Manitoba report is upfront about this, naming systemic racism as the root cause of the disparity and providing ample context for the claim. Racialized residents are more likely to work in front-line industries, live in overcrowded or inadequate housing and suffer underlying medical conditions as a result of poor access to health and social services — all of which increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

The correlation between systemic racism and poor health is not new. Winnipeggers in low-income neighbourhoods have long been more likely to die prematurely and be diagnosed with a chronic disease than those in higher-income neighbourhoods, according to a 2019 assessment of community health. The gaps that already existed have become chasms during the pandemic.

So, how is the government planning to use the data it has collected to improve health outcomes for BIPOC Manitobans? By collecting more data, making health information available in more languages, and community outreach, explained chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin during last Monday’s media briefing. None of these addresses the aforementioned factors contributing to health inequality.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin

If the government is unable or unwilling to directly deal with the effects of systemic racism during the pandemic, other than making mention of them in a 10-page report, the least it can do is update the vaccine eligibility criteria to include at-risk BIPOC communities.

If a segment of the population is experiencing more cases of COVID-19, vaccinating that population should be a priority. This is already happening with older Manitobans and First Nations groups (although Inuit and Métis residents are not yet included), who are first in line for immunization.

Decisions about who to vaccinate first are based on risk factors determined by the best available data. It’s curious, then, that the province isn’t using the data it has been collecting for nearly a year on the disparate impact of COVID-19 on racialized communities to inform and improve its vaccine rollout plan.

Unless it isn’t curious at all, and it’s another example of systemic racism at play. If that’s the case, Manitobans deserve better.