British Columbia

COVID-19 rates in South Asian communities require nuanced understanding, scholar explains

University of Fraser Valley expert says there needs to be a better understanding of why South Asian communities in B.C. might be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

Generalizations about gatherings, multigenerational homes pathologizes culture, says Satwinder Bains

Satwinder Bains is the director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C. (Satwinder Bains)

As B.C.'s COVID-19 curve continues to trend upward, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix have noted that significant transmission is happening among people of South Asian descent in the Fraser Health region.

This week, Henry stressed that there are a number of reasons why that would be. Many in the community work in frontline jobs that expose them to higher risk, such as food processing plants and health-care settings, she said.

Henry also said on Thursday that there are "cultural reasons" why people come together in large numbers or live with a large immediate family.  

"These are things that unfortunately this virus can exploit," she said. "It doesn't recognize who we are, but it recognizes that when we're in crowded situations indoors that we can pass it on."

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said reasons for high numbers of COVID-19 cases in the Fraser Health include workers in riskier jobs like food processing and health care returning to multigeneration homes where the virus can spread quickly. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

While she supports Henry's attempts to communicate the risks of COVID-19, Satwinder Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, worries the focus on cultural gatherings and the fact that a number of racialized communities live in multigenerational households "pathologizes culture" and does not address the root causes of why these communities might be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

"The moment that message goes out that racial groups — especially where race is a marker of difference — comes out, there's fear of stereotypical advances," said Bains. 

"People start to have fear in their hearts and minds. People come up with their own assumptions around what is going on in the community." 

Multigenerational households offer social, economic support

Bains says, for example, that the norm in Canada is for most families to live in nuclear households with "1.5 children, a white picket fence, a dog and a cat." 

But a lot of people in the South Asian community live in multigenerational homes that include elderly family members, and they do it for a myriad of reasons, she said.

"We don't talk about white culture that says it's perfectly normative to put your elders in an extended care facility where the risk is really high," she said. 

"You know, people question why we live in large homes, why we have extended family units without really understanding the social, the cultural, the economic support that happens to families.

"We have the cradle-to-grave family system that ... protects and condones codependency in a sense that we look after you when you're small, you look after us when we are old." 

Instead of pointing out how such living arrangements could make COVID transmissions easier, Bains said she would like health officials to focus the message more on how to protect seniors within such households and how to mitigate risks of exposure. 

She would also like Dr. Bonnie Henry to include more South Asian physicians or health care workers in the province's effort to spread the message about COVID-19 restrictions. 

Bains also points out there needs to be a better understanding of the different health and economic determinants that may put people in some ethnic communities at higher risk of COVID-19. 

The need for ethnicity-based data

Kulpreet Singh, founder of the South Asian Mental Health Alliance, says collecting data that includes ethnicity would allow health officials to help communities impacted by COVID-19. 

Kulpreet Singh is the founder of the South Asian Mental Health Alliance. (Kulpreet Singh)

Health officials would be better able to target their outreach efforts and resources, and such data could also help in the fight against the province's drug poisoning crisis, Singh said.

B.C., however, is not currently collecting such data.

"When we look at — historically — diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease we always talk about which communities are at greater risk," Singh said. 

"We talk about which kinds of diets we need to work on, we look at what kind of work environments, we look at systemic issues like racism or settlement. I just don't understand why when it comes to overdoses or COVID-19 we wouldn't have the same approach."

LISTEN: Satwinder Bains with the University of Fraser Valley says more nuanced conversations about COVID-19 rates in the South Asian community are needed 

University of Fraser Valley South Asian Studies Institute director Satwinder Bains speaks with Michelle Eliot about the way policy makers and the virus have targeted minorities in B.C. 10:20

With files from The Early Edition and On the Coast

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