Arlene Reid. Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero. Joyce Echaquan. These are just three of the thousands of lives that have been lost during the pandemic, but in many ways they characterize who is dying. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread through Canada, proclamations from government officials about a virus that doesn’t discriminate was belied by the names and faces of those who were perishing.
Their stories reflect massive systemic inequities at the intersection of race and social class that amplify both the chances of being infected with COVID-19 and the barriers to receiving proper protection and care. Of course, COVID-19 doesn’t choose its victims on its own. Instead, Canadian society has structured itself to assure that those most likely to suffer poor health outcomes are Black, Brown, and Indigenous Canadians who earn low-wages and have little wealth, while White Canadians, who have more economic resources, are far more likely to be protected.
The fact that there are racial health inequities for COVID-19 isn’t surprising. Racial inequities have been documented for nearly every health outcome. Yes, even in Canada. The evidence suggests that once you strip away the protection that newly- arrived immigrants initially carry, Black and Indigenous Canadians in particular experience worse health than White Canadians.
There is growing recognition that race –and more accurately, racism – is one of the most important structural drivers of health inequities for Canadians in much the same way as it is for Americans. What is different now is that the country’s attention is squarely on the epidemiology of a disease – how and to whom COVID-19 spreads – and social movements, the media, and academics have brought the epidemiological importance of racism front and center.
Why did Arlene Reid, Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero, and Joyce Echaquan die and why is the risk of contracting COVID-19 systematically worse for Black, Brown and Indigenous people compared to White people? The most concise answer is that the lives of Black, Brown and Indigenous people, are shaped by immediate and long-term processes of systemic racism. Living within this context creates a higher likelihood of having a compromised underlying health status, and a lower likelihood of receiving timely and adequate care. Meanwhile, White lives are – on average – shaped by processes of systemic advantage, which create a higher likelihood that White people are waiting out the pandemic in the comfort of their homes, have a better underlying health status, and can be more confident in receiving the best possible health care.
Are there also poor, White Canadians? Of course, there are. Nevertheless, racism and racial inequity is a primary way that economic inequity is organized in a country such as Canada: a capitalist, settler-colonial state. Progressives who are working to solve economic inequality need to recognize racial inequality as one of the primary drivers. This reckoning is essential to representing the interests of the majority of victims of economic inequality, and to seeking truly effective solutions.
There is a distinct link between systemic racism (particularly anti-Black and Indigenous systemic racism), economic injustice, and COVID-19. Solutions must tackle the most fundamental reasons for racial inequity rather than fixating solely on short-term programs and policies that might alleviate inequities but leave intact the underlying systems and societal logics which produced them.
This report is part of our Essential Solutions Project, which brings together experts across multiple disciplines to generate innovative answers to the complex challenges we face right now, and chart a path towards a more equitable and resilient future for all of us.