A new study by three Scarborough researchers shows that the places that have been hardest hit by COVID-19 are also the places where multiple working adults or families are all sharing a household.
The study by the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership and the University of Toronto found that the maps that showed which areas in the GTA have high rates of COVID-19, shared a lot of overlap with areas that had the most households of what they call “mutually dependent adults.” One of those areas being Scarborough, where all three researchers reside.
The findings confirm some assumptions people have made about why COVID-19 has spread the way it has, disproved some others, and reinforced why information like this is crucial to an effective pandemic response.
But looking to the future it also shows that as more people live in bigger households like this, it’s time we get ahead of this issue, and build homes that can keep the people living inside healthy.
What does mutually dependent mean?
Using special-ordered Statistics Canada data from 2006 and 2016, the team parsed data on “mutually dependent adults” — combinations of households that could be a group of roommates, a grandparent living with a single mom, a family who rents out a room in their house — pretty much any situation where multiple working-age adults are living together under one roof, rather than independently, or as just a traditional couple.
Between 2006 and 2016 as housing costs skyrocketed, the amount of working-age residents living together and depending on one another also grew by about 13 per cent across the country.
The most being in the notoriously expensive Toronto and Vancouver, where in 2016 mutually dependent adults were 27 and 25 per cent of the population, respectively.
Multiple-family households and COVID-19
When broken down by neighbourhoods in Toronto, overall, the 10 with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases had just over twice as many mutually dependent adults at 37 per cent of the population. These were mostly found in Scarborough, northwest Toronto and some areas of York and North York.
Meanwhile neighbourhoods that had more independent households also had fewer COVID-19 cases.
The same held true in the GTA, with areas like Brampton. which has 37.2 per cent of adults in these kinds of households, and the highest average household size in the GTA — 3.5 people compared to Canada’s overall average 2.4. At the end of last year, Brampton also had 68 per cent of Peel Region’s COVID-19 cases.
John Stapleton, social policy expert and one of the study’s authors, said pooling resources in this way is both a solution to the high cost of living in Toronto, and to improve quality of living. It’s a way for people to potentially get more space — a house with a yard, for example, rather than living independently in smaller homes. But it created a higher risk for a virus like COVID-19.
“What it was doing was creating an accelerant for a pandemic of this particular sort,” Stapleton said.
Through the pandemic, Stapleton noted the assumptions that were made about why racialized people have seen disproportionate rates of COVID-19 — gathering for holidays like Diwali, language barriers. “It has very little to do with it,” he said.
“Having so many people in a household and a number of adults working ... and most likely working right in key sectors that you can’t do the work from home ... that means that those households will be more vulnerable to COVID spread,” said David Hulchanski, a housing and community development professor at U of T.
“It’s demonstrating in yet another way what is wrong with having such a huge gap in income and wealth, which then affects all aspects of our life,” Hulchanski said.
Seeing the overlap in the maps reaffirms that it is wise to focus treatment and resources in these highly-affected areas.
“In other words, it’s telling you, yes, you should have the vaccines (for) Scarborough. You should be doing this stuff by postal code,” Stapleton said.
Still with the vaccine rollout, Ontario only allotted 25 per cent of supply to hot spot areas despite its science table recommending 50 per cent, and only recently announced plans to up it to half as distribution has expanded.
Epidemiologist Colin Furness said that the province’s reluctance to collect demographic data and have it influence the response from the start of the pandemic, has been a huge downfall.
“The tail has really had to pull the dog along here and it really should not be that way,” he said.
Building a healthier future
While the high cost of housing is a factor at play here, Stapleton also notes that for some families, it’s more traditional and a choice to live together, rather than just affordability and circumstance.
And with this data in mind, and the cultural choice factor, both Furness and Stapleton see a takeaway being to make these kinds of multi-family households more livable and safe.
Furness said: “How do we make ourselves resistant to communicable disease in a home? No one talks about that. So, I think we might have some opportunities in terms of how we think about designing safe residences, given what we now understand both what living patterns are, and what the risks are associated with that.”
Furness said building codes, ventilation requirements, the ability for more separation in the household are all things that could be incorporated into creating living spaces that can keep people safe. And also considering sustainability, rather than plowing into farmland in Ontario to create more and bigger houses.
It’s a complex problem he said and it’s up to leaders to move the dial in this direction. Furness says he is “not optimistic.”
“What we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.”
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star