Workers Health & Safety Centre

COVID-19 rates higher among racialized and low wage workers

Despite making up just 25 per cent of the Ontario population, immigrants and refugees accounted for more than 43 per cent of the cases of COVID-19, according to a recent report.
 
This report, published on September 9, 2020 by the not-for-profit research institute ICES, is just the latest evidence suggesting racialized populations, precarious workers and low wage earners are more at risk of being afflicted with the COVID-19 disease. This particular study looked at the patterns of testing and test results for immigrants and refugees in Ontario up to June 13, 2020.
 
Overall, immigrants and refugees were found to be less likely to be tested and, when they are, significantly more likely to be COVID positive compared to Canadian-born and long-term residents.

Systemic inequities

The highest rates of positive tests were in immigrants and refugees from Central, Western and East Africa; South America; the Caribbean; South East Asia and South Asia who are racialized in Canada, more likely to live in a low-income neighbourhood and have higher household densities.
 
As noted by the authors of this provincial report, “Causes of these inequities are complex and often rooted in social and structural inequities, including systemic racism.”
 
Data from Toronto Public Health collected from May 20, 2020 to July 16, 2020, speak further to the impact the virus has on racialized communities. Of particular relevance, more than 80 per cent of known COVID-19 cases involve members of these communities and yet only half of Toronto’s population identify as belonging to a racialized group. Toronto data also showed lower income earners suffered disproportionately compared to higher income earners.
 
“Low-income populations are much more likely to be overcrowded," explains Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO Wellesley Institute, a non-profit organization focused on improving health and health equity in the Toronto-area through action on the social determinants of health. McKenzie adds, “Our racialized populations are much more likely to be overcrowded.”
 
This overcrowding, referred to as higher household densities in the provincial report, makes physical distancing and self-isolation, when required, difficult, if not impossible. Though, evidence and experience tells us where one lives is just part of the excess risk faced by racialized communities.

Work inequities

Many face double jeopardy as they are overrepresented in workplaces deemed essential from the outset of the pandemic where physical distancing is also difficult and COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred. Examples include meat packing and other food processing facilities, commercial farming operations and retail stores (including grocery), long-term and community care and many frontline public services.  
 
Many are also precariously employed which typically means poorly paid, part-time and/or temporary work, insecure work and often without benefits, including no access to employer funded sick leave. Research evidence also tells us precarious workers are less likely to receive adequate health, safety and job-specific training along with inequitable access to health care, particularly important during this pandemic.     
 
Like the provincial report conducted by the ICES a recent opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen also dubbed the public health response to the COVID crisis as “systemic racism,” as it failed to protect these vulnerable workers. The opinion piece concludes, “A robust public health system should stridently hold employers accountable for ensuring the health and safety of their employees, as well as provide employers with clear guidance on how to do so. Public health officials must act in the best interest of the communities they serve, and not in the interest of maintaining corporate solvency or bottom lines.”

Addressing inequities

In response to the Toronto data, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health spoke of a necessary path forward. "If we want to have a true impact, a real impact on improving health, including COVID-19, we need to address these health inequities and get to the root cause of what underpins our overall health. We need to focus on the social determinants of health, like affordable housing opportunities, access to employment and income supports, and educational opportunities. And yes, we need to address systemic racism."
 
Meantime, the provincial report recommends:
  • Public policy actions to better identify positive cases and limit transmission, including bringing mobile testing to the communities and workplaces where these at-risk groups live and work
  • Better training and workplace safety enforcement measures
  • Income supplements for workers who must quarantine and don’t have access to employer-sponsored sick leave
  • Funding to house those unable to safely isolate or quarantine at home and similar access for the homeless community.

In Toronto at least the City is helping to address this last recommendation by recently opening a voluntary isolation site to be used primarily by people testing positive for COVID-19 or at significant risk for infection and who live in overcrowded housing.

WHSC can help

In all we do, we put workers first.  After all, it is their lives and livelihoods that are affected most when workplace hazards, including the COVID-19 virus go uncontrolled. Our COVID-19 training offers critical insight into measures needed for the protection of workers, their families and communities. Equally important during these unprecedented times, this program is delivered safely in our virtual classroom and priced at a nominal fee.
 
We also continue to develop and update COVID-19 resources to help ensure workplace parties and others have access to a trusted source of the most current information. Follow us too on social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. There we share news and insights daily.

To learn more: 
Visit: www.whsc.on.ca
Call: 1-888-869-7950
Email: contactus@whsc.on.ca