SERIES: Race, Covid + Inequality 

A year after the World Health Organization first declared COVID-19 a global health emergency, we are nearing 100,000,000 cases and over 2,100,000 coronavirus deaths. And while the coronavirus can wreak havoc on anyone, anywhere, there is nothing equal about the impact that COVID-19 has had on marginalized populations.  

Oxfam’s recently published report, ‘The Inequality Virus’, shows that the coronavirus has exposed, fed off and increased existing inequalities of wealth, gender and race. 

Across the globe, we have seen that the virus has disproportionately impacted those already made vulnerable by systematic racism and other intersectional injustices – and the dangers of this systemic inequality will only grow as vaccine programs begin to roll out. It is not an accident that across the globe – from Brazil to the United States to South Africa –  Black people, Afro-descendants, Indigenous Peoples and other racialized groups are more likely to contract COVID-19, and to suffer the worst consequences. From access to health care, exposure to the virus related to occupation, to socioeconomic status, non-White people have been made more vulnerable thanks to inequalities built into the very structures of society. This is a frightening realization. Yet it is also an opportunity: if systemic inequalities were built, they can also be unbuilt. And doing so will be better for all of us.  

In this blog series, Oxfamers from across the globe share their observations of how race, the coronavirus and inequality intersect.  

Series edited by Raina Fox, Oxfam International Coronavirus Influencing Groups Coordinator.

Racism & Inequality is the first crisis! 

By Siham Rayale

2020 began with so many changes for my family and the hope of new beginnings. My second son was born in January and news would soon reach us here in Canada that a new virus was ravaging communities in Wuhan, China. COVID-19 began to move through China to eventually become a global pandemic.  

By mid-March as cases were detected and rising, strict lockdown measures were being initiated by federal and provincial governments. My hometown Toronto has the largest population in Canada and yet it felt like a ghost city as lockdowns were imposed. Economic and social activity ground to a halt. The normally busy roads were starkly empty, schools sent students home, and a new normal set-in. March and April were two months that packed a lifetime of anxiety and fear. 

In the fog that we all felt as days and weeks became months, stories emerged about people’s lived experience of the pandemic, though some had harsher realities than others.  

As a new mom, adjusting to a changing family dynamic is par for the course. But COVID-19 was nothing any household could prepare for. Across every study that assesses the impact of this virus on women, (health conditions, employment status, mental health and violence against women) we say that as care responsibilities went up, women’s productivity went down. This is my reality. I struggled to complete course lectures for my students while feeding my infant. I struggled to mark papers while thinking of ways to keep the alphabet a fun exercise for my toddler.  

On top of this, I would soon learn that as a Black woman, my community would become overrepresented in alarming ways as the pandemic continued. Black women’s care responsibilities increased inside and outside of their households in both a ‘sexual and racial division of labour.’ Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour (BIWOC) are overrepresented in care professions and experience a wage gap of 59 cents for every dollar a white man earns. Systemic racism in Canada was being brought to the foreground and out of the shadows. 

In a world of COVID-19, the call to collect race-based data is deafening. We cannot take action to address systemic racism in Canada unless we understand how it effects people. We cannot allocate services or provide additional funding or resources without understanding who needs it most.  

Statistics Canada has already illustrated that Indigenous communities have had difficulties accessing quality health services due to remote living and are therefore more vulnerable if infection rates are not monitored. With nearly 83 per cent of Inuit communities in Nunavut reportedly without a family doctor in an area only accessible by air. COVID-19 can have devastating consequences noted, more recently, by rising cases and limited services for many Indigenous communities where there was already a significant gap in the availability of health services and supports. 

#Black Lives Matter 

In midst of this pandemic, anti-Black racism protests erupted globally.  

In Toronto, the campaign for racial justice led by Black Lives Matter Toronto goes hand in hand with the way that COVID-19 impacts on racialized communities. COVID-19 did not diminish the push to tackle inequality in Canada, it magnified it. When the public health crisis makes the lives of Black and Brown communities even bleaker, it means that racism and inequality is the first crisis in Canada. Toronto neighbourhoods in the North West and East of the city have shown greater positivity rates than many other neighbourhoods. In essence, the poorer the neighbourhood, the greater the positivity rate. Lockdown measures, multi-generational households and inadequate housing meant that richer neighbourhoods could adapt to social distancing and work-from-home orders. A labour force of essential workers largely comprised of Black and Brown grocery store cashiers, health professionals, transit workers illustrates that systemic racism and inequality came to the forefront of COVID-19 infection rates. The risks associated with being an ‘essential worker’ means greater exposure on a daily basis to COVID-19. One of the biggest grocery chains in Canada, Loblaws and its owner, Galen Weston, have added billions to their overall wealth since the start of this pandemic. This is happening at the same time as a $2 pandemic pay ends for Loblaws grocery store workers. Lockdown measures have benefitted the wealthiest Canadians –White male billionaires – when compared with workers we can’t live without throughout this ordeal. In Canada, the fortunes of the country’s 44 billionaires have increased by almost $63.5 billion (CAD) since March 2020. This is enough to give every one of the 3.8 million poorest people in Canada a cheque for $16,823 (CAD). This is obscene. 

The pandemic continues to exacerbate existing inequalities in Canada, and we still don’t fully understand the experience of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.  Again, race-based data is critical to help paint a better picture of how different communities have experienced COVID-19. But so is utilizing equity-based approaches to understand how deeply embedded inequality and systemic racism is in Canada. Equity, addressing the root causes of inequality in intersectional ways, is a much-needed perspective that can help us pinpoint inequalities more clearly. The effects of COVID-19 are different across communities. The more marginalized a community is, the worse the impact. Understanding that marginalization and the role that racism and inequality play can lead to better approaches; one that is equity-focused. Alarmingly, women in Canada account for 70% of all job losses because of the pandemic. Black, Indigenous and women of colour are overrepresented in low wage industries that have been decimated by the pandemic. 

Black and Brown communities do not merely want to be counted; we want our lives to matter. We want to give meaning to our struggles but also our resiliency.  

2020 has instilled a greater resiliency in my capacity to parent, especially during a pandemic. Yet my children should not have to grow up in a society where they need to be more resilient because of systemic racism. Understanding systemic racism and these inequalities as a fundamental part of how our society is organized can help to build a future that I hope tackles racism more openly and more sincerely. 

Siham Rayale has over a decade of experience working in development policy and programming. Her current research and advocacy focus centers on issues relating to women, peace and security with an emphasis on justice-sector reform as well as intersectional feminist activism.

This blog is also available on Medium.