Race-based COVID-19 data collection should be mandatory, says City of Vancouver committee

Members of a City of Vancouver committee have added their voices to the call for the collection of race-based COVID-19 data to understand the impacts of the virus on racialized communities.

The City of Vancouver’s racial and ethno-cultural equity advisory committee joins health advocates, elected officials and human rights commissions across the country who say racialized communities are at high risk of contracting the disease and gathering information is critical to protect vulnerable groups.

The committee is asking the city and the provincial government to take action by mandating the collection, use and analysis of socio-demographic and race-based data in health and social service sectors related to COVID-19 — and to continue doing so post-pandemic for all general health matters as well.

“This pandemic, and future crises, cannot be effectively tackled without addressing underlying structural inequities that have exacerbated its escalation,” committee co-chair, Ignatius But, said in a media release.

Structural inequities

Underlying structural inequities can include working front-line jobs that put racialized individuals at greater risk of infection, living in smaller homes that make it a challenge to self-isolate, encountering barriers to accessing information, and having a lower socio-economic status.

A 2018 report by Health Canada found significant health inequalities were already observed for racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and Indigenous peoples before the current health crisis.

Outside of Indigenous groups, B.C. has not been collecting data on how COVID-19 is impacting people based on their race. However, in a Monday press briefing, Dr. Bonnie Henry pointed out the province’s COVID survey includes questions about socio-economic status and ethnicity. 

“Unfortunately, we are not really able to get a proper look because that information is voluntary, we need it to be mandatory,” committee member Kevonnie Whyte said Monday on The Early Edition.

Whyte also said that data should be collected in partnership with racialized community groups and co-owned by those partners to ensure the information is used to understand structural inequities and not used for any other purpose.

The United States does collect racial data concerning COVID-19 and that data shows black and Latino patients have been much more likely to die of the disease.

New numbers from Toronto Public Health also suggest the COVID-19 pandemic is more adversely affecting people with lower incomes in Toronto, alongside newcomers to the city.

Discrimination by neglect

One of Canada’s leading experts on the social causes of disease told CBC Radio’s The House last week that Canada’s failure to collect race-based data on COVID-19 infections amounts to discrimination by “neglect.”

“Discrimination is not necessarily about what you do. It’s often about what you don’t do,” said Dr. Kwame McKenzie, a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto and CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a think tank that studies urban health issues.

“It’s not about people being actively discriminatory or racist. It’s sometimes about just neglect,” he said. “And the fact that we haven’t collected this data seems neglectful, because everybody really knew we should be collecting these data but it was never at the top of anybody’s list of things to do.”

Earlier this week, the federal government said that while it typically does not collect race-based health data, it is working on plans to start doing so now.

“We need to do a much better job around disaggregated data and that’s something that we’re going to do,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a press briefing June 5.

Tap here to hear the complete interview with Kevonnie Whyte and Ignatius But on The Early Edition.

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