In December of 2019, the first case of SARS-CoV-2 emerged in Wuhan, China. The disease quickly spread and escalated into a global pandemic. As of March 6, 2021, there are a total of 884,086 cases in Canada and22,213 deaths. These numbers have damaged communities far and wide. However, the consequences of the pandemic have spread beyond Covid-19’s severe health effects to deepening societal disparities. The pandemic has perpetuated the systemic social and racial inequalities facing marginalized populations.
Indigenous communities have faced a higher prevalence of health issues due to limited access to resources, elevating the average death rate due to Covid-19. Among First Nations and Métis adults, a higher incidence of asthma, diabetes, arthritis, and obesity has been observed compared to non-Indigenous adults. Indigenous Peoples living on reserves have restricted access to consistent health care and struggle with obtaining adequate housing and dependable social services—making them vulnerable to highly contagious diseases such as Covid-19. Additionally, the lack of proper network services has made communicating with healthcare professionals, who have switched to providing services virtually amid the pandemic, a challenge. Public measures set out by the government, such as social distancing and regular handwashing, are difficult for some Indigenous communities to follow due to the lack of clean water and overcrowding in residences.
These communities also do not always have available designated spaces for self-isolation when an individual tests positive for the virus—putting others in danger and promoting community spread. The cumulation of the systemic inequalities and racism experienced by Indigenous Peoples has been magnified during the pandemic, showing how these communities are disproportionately affected by the virus compared to the rest of the population. On March 4, 2021, the Indigenous Services Canada reported 21,836 total cases of Covid-19 in the Indigenous communities and 245 total deaths.
The Government of Canada has delivered two million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna/NIAID vaccines countrywide. The vaccination plan set out by the Government of Canada is divided into various stages, where each stage prioritizes the vaccination of different key populations and vulnerable groups. In the first stage of the vaccination plan, the residents and staff of long care homes, seniors over the age of 70, and front-line healthcare workers will be prioritized. The government has also given priority of vaccination to the adults of the Indigenous communities at this time.
Indigenous communities are also prioritized in the second stage of vaccination, where adults not vaccinated in stage one will receive the vaccine. Additionally, adults living in racialized communities are also prioritized in stage two. The Indigenous Service of Canada has reported that vaccination is underway in more than 480 Indigenous communities, including all the communities in the territories and the First Nations and Inuit communities living in the provinces. The extra efforts taken to ensure proper vaccination of the vulnerable Indigenous communities have allowed for rapid immunization. In fact, due to the additional planning, the rate of vaccination in the Indigenous communities is six times higher than in the rest of Canada.
However, while the vaccination plan prioritizes the vaccination of Indigenous adults living on reserve, there are limited plans for the vaccination of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit individuals living off the reserve in urban areas. This lack of a proper vaccination plan for those living in urban areas resulted in the National Association of Friendship Centres urging for a vaccine rollout plan specific to Indigenous communities. Indigenous Peoples living beyond reserve land are unable to travel back to the reserves to receive vaccination as the doses supplied to the reserves are only in enough quantity to immunize the permanent residents of the reserves. The Assembly of First Nations suggests a possible solution by providing the vaccines to clinics serving the Indigenous Community in urban areas. Currently, the Indigenous Services of Canada reports that Indigenous adults living in urban areas will be vaccinated by their respective provinces and territories’ health services.
The Black community has also been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 in Canada. It is statistically more likely to be infected by the virus due to risk factors such as greater front-line work, overcrowded and multigenerational living conditions, and medical conditions prevalent in the community, such as higher incidence of obesity and diabetes. Not to mention, overcrowded and multigenerational housing conditions make it difficult to isolate sick individuals and practice social distancing.
In Toronto, the Black community, along with other individuals of colour, have accounted for 83 per cent of Covid-19 cases between the onset of the pandemic and July 2020, while contributing to only 50 per cent of the city’s population.
In addition to the high number of cases in the Black community, there is also greater vaccine hesitancyobserved in the community. Toronto Public Health reported that among the Black community, 30 per cent were hesitant to take the Covid-19 vaccine. This apprehension exists largely due to the history of racial injustices experienced by the Black community at the hand of scientific experiments. Examples such as the case of Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee Syphilis show the understandable hesitancy the community has about the vaccine. Henrietta Lack was a Black woman whose cancerous cells were used for research without her consent, and the profits made from the advances were never given back to her family. In the Tuskegee Syphilis study, Black men with and without syphilis were enrolled; however, the true purpose of the study was not revealed to them, and consent was never granted.
As a response to the apprehension observed, the City of Toronto developed a Black Community Covid-19 Response Plan in December 2020. This plan addresses concerns surrounding vaccination and raises awareness about Covid-19 health and safety to support Black Torontonians.
Covid-19 has unleashed devastating effects worldwide. However, marginalized communities, such as the Indigenous community and the Black community, have been, and continue to be disproportionately affected by the disease and its consequences. There have been numerous efforts to ensure effective vaccine delivery to these communities and to account for apprehensions surrounding vaccination. However, awareness needs to be raised about how social and racial disparities manage to disrupt these communities in a time of great risk. Covid-19 is not selective based on race, so the only way to explain the suffering of the Black and Indigenous communities is by the lack of support from health networks and governments. It is imperative to minimize racial disparities in the Canadian health care systems—for now, and for forever.