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COVID-19 pandemic worsened disparities for ethnocultural communities in Canada: study

TORONTO — The COVID-19 pandemic worsened existing disparities for ethnocultural communities in Canada, according to a new study that has researchers calling for more inclusive approaches to tackling unemployment, food inequity and housing insecurity.

The research, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday, showed job losses exacerbated food and housing insecurities for visible minorities, immigrants and refugee communities. Family violence, COVID-19 prevention and mental health were among their top concerns during the pandemic.

To put the findings together, University of Alberta teamed up with community workers from Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative (MHBC) — who support newcomers in Edmonton — to collect 773 stories from people.

“The key message is ethnocultural or racialized minority communities are populations that require more attention and appropriate policy,” Yvonne Chiu, study co-author and co-executive director of MHBC, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

They found that, like Canadians in general, COVID-19 destabilized ethnocultural families and forced breadwinners to spend more time and money to support their loved ones.

What made situations worse for people was not being able to speak English proficiently; being unable to find easy-to-understand information, and not having paid sick leave to self-isolate.

Since the start of the pandemic, advocates and frontline public health workers have pushed for COVID-19 resources in various languages and paid sick leave for all.


This latest study joins a growing body of research which suggests racialized communities and marginalized people have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

During the first part of the pandemic, Statistics Canada found COVID-19 infections were three times higher, hospitalizations rates were four times higher and deaths were twice as high in neighbourhoods with higher concentrations of visible minorities.

Anti-racism medical experts have previously laid a lot of blame of the poorer health outcomes on unaddressed racism and structural inequalities in the medical community.

Other studies show visible minorities are more likely to work in industries worst hit by the pandemic, such as food and accommodation services.

And, when looking at unemployment rates, a StatCan report from March found unemployment remained higher among Indigenous people; and an October report found non-employment for recent immigrants peaked in April 2020 at 17.3 per cent, which was higher than the 13.5 per cent among longer-term immigrants and those born in Canada.

Funke Olokude, a Nigerian-Canadian who works with Chiu and is one of the peer researchers, has been working with racialized families for close to 25 years now. She said the inequities existed well before the pandemic and they saw that first-hand.

“Most of what’s being highlighted we’ve seen the ground, these inequities have only been heighted by COVID,” she said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Monday.


To help address the disparities, Olokude and the other authors urge policymakers to tap into the social capital of these ethnocultural groups by involving community members in high-level decision-making processes.

Olokude said people from other countries “come with a wealth of knowledge” and that sometimes they simply need guidance to overcome technology or language barriers. Chui agreed.

“We really rely on our lived experiences a lot in our every-day work,” Chui said.

She was born in Myanmar and raised in Hong Kong before coming to Canada as a teenager, and she said varied experiences like hers, helps the team “understand the unfolding realities of those we serve.”

Chiu noted their findings highlight how crucial it is to have trusted intermediaries in ethnic communities helping to bridge the gap, and these can include community and faith leaders, and those who work with government systems regularly.

Unrelated to the study, culturally-specific approaches have sprung up out of necessity in Canada, with Muslim, east-Asian, Black-community led initiatives doing everything from tackling COVID-19 misinformation, to forming mental health support groups, to rolling out the vaccine.

The authors said community health workers also greatly helped families navigate health and social care systems – which was especially pertinent as criteria for pandemic support programs were constantly being updated.

“Cultural brokering and community social capital were key supports for people in [the COVID-19] crisis, and our findings can support policy and interventions that may reduce harm and support community resiliency,” the authors said.

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