OTTAWA -- Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we've heard the expression "we're all in this together" but data from Ottawa Public Health and several other social services partners show that we're not all in this together in quite the same way.

Ottawa's medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, was joined on Tuesday by Andrea Gardner, Associate Executive Director of Jewish Family Services and co-chair of the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership’s (OLIP) Health and Wellbeing Sector Table, OLIP director Hindia Mohamoud, and Naini Cloutier, Executive Director of the Somerset West Community Health Centre to speak about the impact of COVID-19 on racialized communities in Ottawa.

The virtual press conference focused on the disproportionate number of racialized residents of Ottawa, particularly Black residents, who have been affected by COVID-19.

The data

Data provided by Ottawa Public Health show that from February through August, 63 per cent of all positive COVID-19 tests were in people who identify as a member of a racialized group, despite representing 29 per cent of the population.

Black residents, specifically, accounted for 37 per cent of positive test results while making up just seven per cent of Ottawa's population.

White residents make up 71 per cent of Ottawa's population, according to the figures OPH shared, but account for only 33 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in the time frame that was studied.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting structural and systemic inequities and barriers to health and social services that pre-existed COVID-19," a report prepared by OPH says. "Long-term solutions are needed to address underlying social determinants of health such as racism, income, housing, and employment."

Other factors include sex and gender. Women and girls are more likely to be affected than men and boys, the data show. This is true across the entire city and not just in racialized groups, with recent OPH data showing of all positive test results in Ottawa to date, 55 per cent were in female patients.

Age is another factor. OPH data show that younger residents, particularly those under 30, account for a greater proportion of people affected.

Only half of all people who had tested positive for COVID-19 during the study period listed English or French as a mother tongue.

Disproportionate impact points to systemic racism

Partners at the virtual news conference said systemic issues that had been problems long before COVID-19 are coming into sharper focus with the pandemic.

"COVID-19 is highlighting differences in health outcomes related to factors such as housing, income, employment status and barriers created by racism and discrimination that negatively impact people’s health and well-being," Dr. Etches said. "People’s living conditions and life situations affect the risk of testing positive for COVID-19 and their ability to prevent COVID-19 transmission in households and communities."

Precarious and frontline work, particularly in health-care settings, was highlighted as a contributor to higher rates of infection among racialized residents, though Dr. Etches was careful to point out that workplaces were not always the known source of exposure to the virus.

However, members of these communities were found to be more likely working in settings that required personal contact and did not offer the ability to work remotely.

Partners said these issues are complex and wide reaching, with societal implications beyond COVID-19.

"Prior to COVID, many immigrants and racialized communities have lived with low income, in crowded housing, and dependent on public transit. They have less access to green space and work in poor conditions in jobs that expose them to health risks and exploitation," Andrea Gardner said. "In the context of COVID, the disproportionate rates of infection mean these work and life conditions have become a matter of life and death and they do need urgent solutions."

What is being done?

OLIP Director Hindia Mohamoud said, given that the impact of COVID-19 is skewed towards immigrant and racialized communities, the response must also be skewed toward protecting those communities.

"To support this work of targeted protection, OLIP has stressed the importance of involving the affected communities in designing these plans," she said. "Sometimes the best we can do is let them lead in terms of identifying challenges and presenting solutions."

One of the main tools that partners say is helping to improve COVID-19 outcomes in disproportionately affected neighbourhoods is targeted assistance in the native languages of those most affected. Staff have been visiting neighbourhoods and knocking on doors to ask if people need any help or referring people to services that can help. In one case, a father of three whose wife was hospitalized was helped through this intervention.

"We received a call about a racialized family of five. Mom, dad, and three young children. Mom had been admitted to the hospital and dad was trying to manage this alone with one friend occasionally dropping off food," said Naini Cloutier. "We were able to connect with the family and provide activity packages for the children, dish soap, gift cards for formula and diapers, laundry soap and dryer sheets and a compassionate, caring staff that spoke the same language to support dad through the crisis."

Mohamoud noted that access to health-care is a significant barrier.

"We heard one mother at a community dialog event who said the majority of families in her neighbourhood do not have a family doctor," Mohamoud said. "That is an urgent matter in our view and we need to find ways of connecting individuals to health-care, especially during out pandemic."

What can you do?

Dr. Etches said the best way to keep COVID-19 from spreading to neighbourhoods and communities that are disproportionally affected is for everyone, especially those who have not been affected as greatly, to continue to follow COVID-19 protocols.

"Very practically, when it comes to COVID transmission, when each of us does our part, it decreases the likelihood that it will reach a family is less advantaged or has less ability to reduce transmission within their household," Dr. Etches said. "We can all wear our masks and keep distance. That's not the solution for the long term but today, what you can do to change the COVID numbers is do your part to control transmission."

However, the issues addressed are complex and societal in nature, and go beyond COVID-19.

"We need to ask ourselves, in all our roles, is the leadership at your workplace diverse? Is there an equitable participation in employment and all of its ranks? It's a question that we need to grapple with in all our roles, all of us," Mohamoud said.

"Look at the intersectionality and understand the intersectionality," Cloutier added. "If someone is Black and living in poverty and has precarious employment, how much more that could impact a person's life. Understanding the issues deeply is very important. Along with representation is a really deep understanding of what is causing this divide. It's important that this question be asked by everyone."