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Race, Data and Equity amid COVID-19

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam and Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo are reflected in a computer screen showing data on Canada’s COVID-19 situation. Photo Credit: The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld
June 1, 2020

COVID-19 has shed light on many of the existing inequalities within our societies. We have seen how systematically oppressed groups are taking a harder hit by the consequences of government-led economic and social measures, as well as by the fact that lower income and minority neighbourhoods are reporting higher amounts of cases in many high-income countries. One important aspect of preparing targeted responses to the pandemic is ensuring we are collecting diverse data. Data has the power to provide transparency and inform equity-based policies and programs.

With many groups being disproportionately impacted, government bodies in Canada and around the world are still refusing to collect vital data — particularly race-based and socioeconomic data. 

Dr. Kate Mulligan and Dr. Jennifer Rayner from the Alliance for Healthier Communities, co-wrote an article along with Dr. Onye Nnorom, Associate Program Director within the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, titled “Race-based health data urgently needed during the coronavirus pandemic.” Their article highlights the need and urgency to collect race-based and socioeconomic data during the pandemic. They cite how Indigenous and Black communities in Canada and the United States face higher-risk conditions for contracting and recovering from the virus, and yet have not received enough targeted care and support because of the lack of data regarding their communities.

Racialized communities and advocacy groups, like the Alliance for Healthier Communities in Ontario, mobilized other organizations and individuals over the month of April to demand that the Government of Ontario collect race-based data. Their call was successful — Ontario announced the first week of May that they will start collecting this information, in addition to the data they collect on gender and age. Manitoba has also decided to start collecting race-based data and Quebec has made plans to start soon.

Why is this type of data important? The numbers can help researchers, governments and public health officials better understand which communities are being hit most, how they are being impacted, and how to respond more effectively. Mulligan et. al elaborates: “It can help direct test kits and personal protective equipment to where they are most needed. Race-based health data is needed to help citizens and residents understand the pandemic’s full impact.”

Data is a powerful tool to dismantle systemic oppression and racism. While many advocate against the collection of race-based data, arguing that it leads to divisive health policies based on ethnicity and propagates negative stereotypes, our current pandemic is reminding us more than ever that race-based data is actually needed to create stronger evidence-based and equitable policies and programs. Furthermore, collecting this data sends a message that these communities and their lives matter.

It is up to all of us to ensure that the data is collected in a democratic and respectful manner, especially as it relates to Indigenous data sovereignty. The data should be used to channel more resources and support for those hit hardest by COVID-19, which in many cases have been racialized communities. COVID-19 is another wake-up call to work towards ensuring that everyone’s dignity and humanity are upheld, and it starts with collecting the right data.