Race-based data is confirming what some on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic have been saying for months — that the novel coronavirus affects communities of colour at a disproportionate rate.
According to early data from Ottawa Public Health (OPH), 66 per cent of people who've tested positive for COVID-19 in Ottawa are racialized — which OPH is using to refer to Black people and others from non-white backgrounds.
The term does not include people who identify as Indigenous.
"We know that there are systemic inequities for these communities," said Naini Cloutier, executive director of the Somerset West Community Health Centre, in an interview with CBC.
"With COVID, the cracks are becoming bigger and you're seeing the very negative impact."
Only 25 per cent of Ottawa residents identified as being a visible minority in the 2016 census, according to Statistics Canada.
Cloutier revealed those numbers at a technical briefing last Wednesday with Ottawa councillors and public health officials. She also laid out the Ottawa Health Team's plan to develop a strategy aimed at minimizing the impact of COVID-19 in those racialized communities.
The strategy will address the specific health and socioeconomic factors that make people from non-white backgrounds, immigrants and newcomers more likely to both catch COVID-19 and experience worse health outcomes.
"What we're proposing is that we have a more holistic strategy," Cloutier said.
OPH started collecting race-based data in June to get a fuller picture of the impact of COVID-19 and the barriers some residents face getting health care in Ottawa.
The data showed Ottawa communities that are poorer and home to higher numbers of recent immigrants and people from non-white backgrounds were experiencing an infection rate nearly twice the city's more well-off areas.
The community strategy will have three components: a "care pathway" for primary care providers, which could involve a more prominent role for doctors and nurse practitioners in diagnosing and treating COVID-19; "wrap-around" community support resources that will help people access health care and other supports; and a team that will improve access to testing.
Cloutier said the details will be worked out through a community engagement process.
Strategy must be tailored, expert says
Hindia Mohamoud, director of the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership, said she knew early on in the pandemic that immigrants faced a higher risk of COVID-19 because of their over-representation in certain jobs — from Uber drivers to personal support workers — that make them more likely to come into close contact with people who've tested positive.
Mohamoud, who is assisting with the consultation process for the community strategy, said the high proportion of immigrants living in high-density housing also makes it hard for them to follow some public health measures, including physical distancing and self-isolation.
"If anyone [in] the family gets infected, then not having access to space means that there's high risk of [the coronavirus] spreading within the family," said Mohamoud.
It's a situation many people of colour find themselves in, and which Cloutier hopes to address with the strategy.
"We need to build capacity for self-isolation and social distancing," said Cloutier.
Rukhsana Ahmed, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa who studies health care in marginalized communities, said any strategy should be tailored to those it's trying to help.
"There's no one-size-fits-all solution," Ahmed said. "What might fit with one community does not fit with another community."
Any public health measures also need to be done in a "culturally competent" way, Ahmed added.
"Making sure that the message sticks with them and it's appropriate is going to be important so that ... you don't have to face an issue with regard to non-compliance," Ahmed said.