Calgary

OPINION | What we don't know about COVID-19 is hurting us

Our failure to collect data on race and ethnicity despite decades of researchers pushing for its inclusion has led to an inequitable health system that fails our diverse population, says Dr. Tito Daodu.

Pandemic spotlights inequality in health outcomes for racialized Canadians

A woman waits for a streetcar in a bus shelter in Toronto earlier this year. In Toronto, Black and other people of colour made up a whopping 83 per cent of all COVID-19 cases. We don't know what the statistics are in most of the rest of the country. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Dr. Tito Daodu, a pediatric surgeon in Calgary.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the inequity in the health outcomes of racialized people in our country.

Canadians pride ourselves on our ideals of multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion, but our rich cultural mosaic has some severe cracks in it. As a flood of data from other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, demonstrated the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic and racial minorities, Canada had no data to show for itself.

Our failure to collect data on race and ethnicity despite decades of researchers pushing for its inclusion has led to an inequitable health system that fails our diverse population.

A familiar axiom in health systems research is "if you can't measure it, you can't improve it." This year, we have collectively grappled with what it means to feel safe in our society, and, importantly, who is privileged to feel safe.

By force, we turned our eyes on things that we were once content to ignore. We call out systemic racism with a voice louder than we have heard in over a generation, yet the ministry of health refuses to quantify it with any data. They remain reluctant to allow for the collection of race-based data over fears of misuse and misinterpretation.

Perpetuating disparity

Instead of looking at reality, we end up pretending disparities don't exist in the Canadian health system for racialized populations. We on the ground know it does. Our health systems' resistance to collect data on race and ethnicity only helps perpetuate disparity while sheltering us all from the facts. 

The gap in knowledge leads to disproportionate harm to racialized populations.

Some health regions in Ontario started to collect race and ethnicity data for patients diagnosed with COVID-19 in April and found that Black patients were 10 times more likely to be infected by COVID-19 than the rest of the population.

In fact, in Toronto, Black and other people of colour made up a whopping 83 per cent of all COVID-19 cases. We don't know what is responsible for this gap. But if it exists with COVID-19, for what other essential health problems does this disproportional representation exist? 

Collecting race and ethnicity data can help us tailor policy and better meet our diverse nation's needs, says Dr. Tito Daodu. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

By taking the step to collect race and ethnicity data, these health regions in Ontario gave visibility to a population experiencing disproportionate harm in this pandemic. These individuals would have otherwise been just another number in our ever-rising case burden.

Getting the data is not an end in itself. Instead, we can use it to help us tailor policy and better meet our diverse nation's needs. 

I understand the resistance to collecting this data. As a proud Canadian, I'm glad I live in a country that values diversity and inclusion. I get why it may feel uncomfortable for us to put our data about race and ethnicity under a microscope when we have built a universal health-care system envied by many other nations.

But it is precisely because we have so much diversity — 22 per cent of our current population with an estimated one-third of the population by 2036 — that we have to take this seriously.

Fully embrace our diversity

Our diversity is our strength. And if we want to fully embrace that diversity, we can't continue to fool ourselves that one-size-fits-all solutions are ever going to be sufficient to maintain excellent health outcomes for the entire population.

Next year, 2021, brings with it a lot of promise. We have learned a lot from 2020. Most of us are keen to leave it behind and learn from the past year's mistakes and failures.

However, 2020 is not wholly to blame. It is a byproduct of years of ignoring problems that were already smouldering under the surface. All 2020 did was highlight deficiencies that we have had all along. It showed us areas where our social safety net fails.

Nationwide collection of race and ethnicity data and other socio-economic indicators for health is just one step that will better prepare our health system to manage a crisis efficiently. More than that, we have an opportunity to improve our overall health outcomes by taking this simple-to-implement step.

It's not OK for us to turn a blind eye to health inequities anymore. What we don't know is hurting us.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Tito Daodu is a pediatric surgeon in Calgary. She is currently completing a master's degree in public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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