News and Articles

COVID-19: We Haven’t Been in This Together

Photo Credit: Manuel Deiker on Unsplash
September 23, 2020

Ji Yoon Han is a 2020 Social Connectedness Fellow working with SCSC to explore the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations and compile lessons learned and best practices to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic going forward. Ji Yoon is passionate about building robust global governance institutions and hopes to pursue a career in an international organization advocating for a sustainable, inclusive system for all.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues around the world, it’s clear that we’re not all in this together. The way visible minorities (especially Black and Indigenous communities), the elderly, and other groups at particular risk experience the pandemic is markedly different from their wealthier, white counterparts. These demographics have higher infection rates, higher rates of job loss, and higher death rates. The Toronto Star reported that while confinement measures in Toronto immediately improved infection rates for Toronto’s whitest, richest neighbourhoods, in Toronto’s poorest 20 neighbourhoods (with the highest percentages of visible minorities), lockdown made little or no difference. The lived reality of these individuals have resulted in higher levels of distrust of government officials. Statistics Canada reported that individuals that were financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic reported lower levels of trust than those who hadn’t been (62% versus 81%). 

This last statistic is alarming, trust is one of the most important factors of a successful COVID-19 response. Many of the countries around the world with the most successful COVID-19 responses have reported high degrees of political trust in their leaders. This trust has been the result of three key variables. Firstly, consistent, clear, and honest messaging. For example, in South Korea, who has been a world leader in containing the coronavirus, President Moon Jae-In gave daily coronavirus press briefings early on to create a “wartime sense of purpose”. This messaging was particularly potent given Korea’s collectivist leanings, where you are taught to look out for the fellow man and wearing masks to prevent spread of illness was commonplace even prior to the pandemic. 

The second is empathy. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern held Facebook live briefings where she displayed empathy for individuals’ confusion and fear by explaining why measures were necessary and setting expectations for what to expect.

But most importantly, their political messaging was also accompanied by actions. Korea implemented a highly effective contact tracing system and empowered local community leaders to deliver “quarantine packages” with 2 weeks’ worth of food and supplies to ensure everyone who needed to quarantine had access to essentials, irrespective of their socioeconomic status. New Zealand locked down early on, preventing need for long term confinement measures and mitigating devastating economic impacts. Both leaders were able to effectively galvanize their countries into complying and reciprocated that trust with evidence-based measures that protected their countries. 

In Canada, while efforts to contain COVID-19 have been relatively successful, there have been a number of oversights that have and will continue to disproportionately impact minority groups. For example, earlier this week, Canada unveiled their COVID-19 Alert app, which notifies individuals if they have been exposed to individuals reporting COVID-19 to the app. However, the app is only available for download for Apple or Android phones made in the last 5 years. This excludes those unable to afford the most recent technology, most often racialized members of the community and the very individuals who have been most impacted by COVID-19. This is not the only instance Canada has overlooked minority groups within the last couple of months. Migrant workers across Canada have been impacted by COVID-19, with outbreaks rampant at numerous farms across the country. Three migrant workers have died. Hundreds more have been infected. Racism, abuse and wage theft have also been endemic across these places of employment. Yet, Canada has provided few avenues for workers to seek recourse. Although they recently introduced an open work permit for abused migrant workers, the risk of retaliation for workers who report is high. Additionally, open work permits are only valid for a maximum of one year. After expiration, the worker would either have to find an employer willing to go through the LMIA process or return to their source country. CTV News reported that even amongst documented residents and citizens, on average, 40 – 46.5% of visible minorities faced job losses (permanent or temporary) versus 34% of their white counterparts. It’s clear that Canada has a lot of work to do in protecting its minorities and being worthy of the trust that they place in this country. 

The full impact of the pandemic across socioeconomic demographics may not be clear for years, if not decades. While the pandemic will subside, the lingering socioeconomic damage will be devastating for minorities and will further widen the inequality gap unless policymakers and leaders listen and include BIPOC activists, academics, health professionals and policymakers in the development of COVID-19 recovery policies. Canada has always benefitted from and capitalized on the diversity of their population. It’s time they put rhetoric into action and protect those very people.