COVID-19 Q&A: Impact of the pandemic on the Black community and the need for race-based data

"This pandemic has highlighted the sociopolitical vulnerability of Black people through a system that continues to colonize through forms of structural violence"
Alicia Boatswain-Kyte, Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been bombarded with statistics. Almost every day, officials break down everything from infection rates and fatalities, to hospitalizations and how many people are intensive care. You can find statistics on the hardest hit regions in Quebec and comprehensive data on every neighbourhood in Montreal.

This past summer, Toronto Public Health released data proving that COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting people of colour there. Here in Quebec, however, the provincial government has been reticent to use race-based data.

In this interview with the Reporter, Alicia Boatswain-Kyte, an assistant professor at the School of Social Work, discusses how COVID-19 is impacting Quebec’s Black community and why race-based data is essential in directing a government’s policy making and resource allocation.

A social worker with over ten years of clinical experience working with marginalized individuals, families and groups, Boatswain-Kyte advocates for transformative social change within our institutions and social policies to ensure that everyone is able to participate as full and equal peers within society. She is involved with several community organizations aiming to improve the health and social outcomes for Black children and families in Montreal.

What has been the impact of COVID-19 on Black populations in Quebec? In Canada?

I struggle with answering this question. Canada’s refusal to collect race-based data makes answering this question difficult. In Quebec, we’ve assumed that the Black population faces disproportionate rates of COVID-19 infection and death based on correlation with racial composition of neighbourhoods. However, we won’t ever be able to answer this question with certainty for all Black Canadians unless collection of race-based data becomes a government priority.

From what we know from certain jurisdictions in Ontario, where race-based data has been collected by selective private/grassroots organizations, is that rates of COVID-19 cases are seven times higher for the Black population than their White counterparts. Furthermore, when compared to the White population, Black people are three times more likely to know someone who has died from the virus and are more likely to say that their household finances have been negatively impacted by COVID-19.

With all the COVID-19 statistics being churned out on a daily basis, why is there so little raced-based data?

When the pandemic first hit there was the outrage and outcry from the Black community regarding a lack of race-based data. This made media headlines as did Quebec, more specifically Montreal, for being the epicentre of the pandemic. We then started hearing about municipal “hot-spots” accompanied by silence on the racial composition of said hotspots.

Part of the reason we’re hearing very little about COVID-19 and the Black population is Quebec’s reluctance to recognize the concept of “race”. There is much more of a willingness to talk about poverty or migration, but separate from the intersection with race.

Having data confirming that Quebec’s Black population is disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 would warrant questions as to why – and there is a real fear of stigmatizing the Black community. How does a province that denies the presence of systemic racism answer that question?

Why is race-based data so important? How should governments use race-based COVID-19 data in terms of their policy making and resource allocation?

Data is knowledge and knowledge informs action. How do you effectively address something that you have no idea of the scope and impact?

This extends well beyond COVID-19. Failure to collect race-based data is ethically irresponsible and constitutes a form of anti-Black racism. It assumes that our responses and systems are colour-blind.

Our research project in collaboration with the Colors of COVID, has made the argument that race-based data during this pandemic will allow for an equity response. This response would recognize the intersections of race, poverty and underlying conditions faced by the Black community.

What is the Colors of COVID project and what is your role in it?

The Colors of COVID is an online platform developed by Influence Orbis. Their founder, Thierry Lindor who is a member of the Black community, was frustrated and angry at the government’s refusal to collect race-based data. He teamed up with Tiffany Callender, the Executive Director of the Cote-des-Neiges Black Community Association (CDNBCA) and she tagged me in. I’m a follower of the movement who responded to the call to action.

Last summer the three of us, along with Dr. Jill Hanley, applied for funding through SSHRC and were granted funds to conduct a pilot-project in Montreal. Influence Orbis has been working closely with the Federation of Black Canadians to replicate the project across Canada. We’ll be analysing data from the survey and conducting focus groups with various community organizations in Montreal to better contextualize our findings and ensure our recommendations our informed by the community.

How receptive have people been? 

We’ve had enormous success with the community sample. This is what distinguishes the project from findings that have emerged from Statistics Canada using crowdsourcing methods. Through this project we’re able to reach the most vulnerable, those who typically would not respond to surveys but do so because of the relationships of trust they have with their community organizations.

Why are Blacks so disproportionately impacted by COVID-19? What are the specific factors that have led to this situation?

I’m going to report what we all already know. The Black population is more likely to be “essential” workers, reside in low-income housing with poor ventilation, be less able to socially distance and be more likely to take public transportation.

Before COVID-19 my area of research focused exclusively on the overrepresentation and disparity of Black children and youth in Quebec’s child protection system. However, I am finding that there are similarities to both areas. I would argue that in both instances it’s anti-Black racism that is driving disparity.

The Black population faces disparate outcomes in health, education, justice, employment and housing. These disparities are not neutral, they are part of Canada’s ongoing history of settler colonialism. The lives of Indigenous and Black people have consistently been devalued throughout Canadian history. This is not the first epidemic that Canada has faced, we have numerous examples of how previous epidemics demonstrated the disposability of our First Nations communities.

This pandemic has highlighted the sociopolitical vulnerability of Black people through a system that continues to colonize through forms of structural violence. Failing to collect data to effectively respond to a virus that is killing Black people at disproportionate rates is violent. Failing to account for the reality of Black people in the decision-making and planning is anti-Black racism. Black people are not a homogenous group and so by no means am I trying to say that there is “one” response needed. However, one targeted response is better than none.