By Leah Nairn
In Chicago, Black people make up 30% of the total population, but account for 70% of those killed by COVID-19 (1). These statistics are echoed in cities across the United States of America. In Canada, we only recently began collecting race-related data on COVID-19, but can assume that the statistics would lean in a similar direction (2). The world is finally talking about anti-Black racism that is deeply engrained within society, but we owe it to the Black community to do more than speak out. We must educate ourselves and we must lead the change.
It is well-established that social determinants play a significant role in health outcomes. The longstanding institution of anti-Black racism limits access to safe housing, education, healthy food and so much more, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty and worsens overall health status. Low income populations are some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19 because social distancing and frequent hand washing are unfeasible (3). Furthermore, the generational stress caused by institutional racism is thought to at least partially explain why Black patients are at a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and numerous other medical conditions. We also know that the presence of these conditions increases the rate of COVID-19 complications and poor outcomes (3).
On average, Black women make 62 cents to every dollar made by a white man (4). Having lower paying jobs means less financial flexibility during difficult times. They are also more likely to work in positions that are considered essential and thus must remain working during the pandemic. Black women are overrepresented in front line jobs such as personal support workers, registered practical nurses and in the gig economy (2). Together this means that many Black women are forced by circumstance to continue attending their jobs to make ends meet and run essential services, despite the high risk associated with working on the frontlines.
When we consider the overrepresentation of Black women on the front lines, the lack of social supports in place to address factors that increase the risk of acquiring COVID-19, and the impact of generational stress that has been endured by the Black community for centuries, we can begin to understand the disparities that exist in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum, there has been a parallel rhetoric that racism is only an American problem. But of course that is patently untrue. In Canada, we cannot even quantify the effect of this pandemic on our Black community because we only recently began collecting the data. Without understanding the extent of the problem, we have no hope in successfully addressing it. Black Lives Matter. There is no excuse to continue to allow Black women to die at higher rates than non-Black women from any cause, whether that be COVID-19, police brutality, or any other preventable ill. We need to advocate for racialized data collection, fair wages, and social services to address the systemic barriers endured by Black women. Canadians can all do better, and the time to start is now.
1. Wingfield, Adia Harvey. “The Disproportionate Impact of Covid-19 on Black Health Care Workers in the U.S.” Harvard Business Review, 14 May 2020, hbr.org/2020/05/the-disproportionate-impact-of-covid-19-on-black-health-care-workers-in-the-u-s.
2. Bowden, Olivia. “Canada’s Lack of Race-Based COVID-19 Data Hurting Black Canadians: Experts.” Global News, 4 May 2020, globalnews.ca/news/6892178/black-canadians-coronavirus-risk/.
3. Yancy CW. COVID-19 and African Americans. JAMA. 2020;323(19):1891–1892. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.6548
4. Cahn, Naomi. “COVID-19’s Impact On Women Of Color.” Forbes Magazine, 24 May 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/naomicahn/2020/05/10/mothers-day-and-covid-19s-impact-on-women-of-color/#404ad57c41ac.