London mayor's comments on higher COVID-19 cases among racialized groups clash with experts

A report that shows a disproportionate number of racialized Londoners have contracted COVID-19 has Mayor Ed Holder pointing to large gatherings by cultural communities. Experts however, say that's simply not the case. 

Visible minorities make up 17 per cent of London's population but 30 per cent of COVID infections

A nurse in full PPE tends to a patient suspected of having COVID-19 in the intensive care unit at North York General Hospital, in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

A report that shows a disproportionate number of racialized Londoners have contracted COVID-19 has Mayor Ed Holder pointing to large gatherings by cultural communities. Experts however, say that's simply not the case.

In fact, those who study the social determinants of health say COVID-19, at first thought to affect those of low and high incomes equally, does the opposite.

"As the pandemic has progressed it has become evident that COVID-19 amplifies existing inequalities," said Kate Choi, a sociologist who studies why certain populations are more likely to have negative health outcomes than others. 

In the London and Middlesex County area, visible minorities make up 17 per cent of the population, but 32 per cent of London's COVID-19 cases are among visible minorities, according to Middlesex London Health Unit data collected between January and October and released this week. 

Those findings mirror other infections rates in cities around North America. 

"We know that in the COVID-19 pandemic, in different countries where racial data has been collected, racial minorities are disproportionately more likely to be infected, in large part because they're much more likely to be socio-economically disadvantaged," Choi said. 

WATCH: Mayor Holder says large gatherings a problem

London mayor responds to question about COVID-19 cases among minorities

2 years ago
Duration 1:48
London Mayor Ed Holder responded to a question about why 30 per cent of cases include minorities in the city, while they only make up 17 per cent of the population.

Speaking at a media briefing Thursday, London Mayor Ed Holder was asked about the London numbers. His answer raised eyebrows among some, because he said the higher infection rate can be in part due to large, sometimes unmasked, social gatherings in certain ethnic communities. 

Speaking later to CBC News, Holder said he understands that racialized people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of systemic issues, and that the statistics need to be better understood. But, he said, there are instances where large gatherings have happened in certain ethnic communities. 

"When there are more people who congregate, there's a greater chance for people to be infected. There are also barriers to health care access, having to take public transportation instead of your own vehicle and, in some cases, working certain jobs that offer grater exposure," Holder said. 

Shobhita Sharma is involved in implementation of the city's community diversity and inclusion strategy. She said listening to Holder's comments was "disappointing and disheartening." 

"I have a lot of respect for the mayor but this is not an issue of socializing, it's an issue of social-economic status. Working from home isn't a luxury that some have. I think instead of generalizing and stereotyping people, there's a need for compassion," Sharma said. 

There are many reasons why racialized people are over-represented in the country's coronavirus infection rates, she said. 

COVID-19 amplifies existing inequalities- Western University sociologist Kate Choi

Research has pointed to four main reasons why racialized Canadians have a higher COVID infection rate, Choi said. 

  • Racial minorities and low income people tend to work in essential services, which means they can't work from home and have a higher risk of exposure.
  • They're more likely to live in crowded or overcrowded households, which means that more people belong to different social environments and have greater and distinct sources of sharing a space. If there is a COVID-19 exposure, it's more difficult to self-isolate from other household members. 
  • They tend to live in neighbourhoods without amenities that allow them to follow public health guidelines, for example wide and well-maintained sidewalks. 
  • Low income families and racial minorities tend to have more pre-existing health conditions because of less access to high quality medical services, which increases the risk of severe and acute forms of COVID. 

Other data collected by the health unit included the incomes of those with the coronavirus, but because not enough people answered the question, the data was not statistically sound. 

Western University sociologist studies the social determinants of health. (Supplied by Kate Choi)

The availability of data, include race and income, as well as age and gender, can help health units design policies that target specific groups, Choi said. 

"By doing so, they can actually mitigate the spread of COVID-19," she said.

"We know that there will be a vaccine available to different Canadians, including residents of the Middlesex-London Health Unit region, and this data can potentially inform the order in which individuals can become vaccinated."

This chart released by the Middlesex London Health Unit breaks down COVID-positive cases by racial group. (Supplied by MLHU)