Manitoba

People of colour know they're hardest hit by COVID-19 in Manitoba. Now they want action

Abdikheir Ahmed, a long-time advocate for newcomers, said Monday's release of race-based data from the provincial government validated what he already knew: COVID-19 has disproportionately hurt minority groups the most.

Dismantle language barriers, target people of colour for vaccines, critics say

A conversation with a friend showed Abdikheir Ahmed the divide between vaccination impacts can depend on income status and where you live. (Courtesy Greg Littlejohn)

It doesn't surprise Abdikheir Ahmed that racialized people are bearing the brunt of Manitoba's pandemic pain. 

He remembers a late-winter conversation with a white friend who lives in Winnipeg's suburbs.

"I was asking this friend of mine whether he knew anyone in his circle who had COVID and he could not count more than five people," said Ahmed, executive director of Aurora Family Therapy Centre and former director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg.

"At that point, I knew more than 200 people who had contracted COVID. People who are clients of my work, as well as people who I know personally."

Ahmed, a long-time advocate for newcomers, said Monday's release of race-based data from the provincial government validated what he already knew: COVID-19 has disproportionately hurt minority groups the most.

The numbers are stark: the infection rate among southeast Asians  — including ethnic Vietnamese, Lao, Thai and Cambodian people — was a staggering 21.7 times greater than the rate for white people from March 31 to June 7 of this year.

Higher vulnerability to the pandemic

African Manitobans had infection rates 8.7 times the rate of white Manitobans during the same time span, while south Asians — people originally from India and Pakistan — had eight times the infection rate.

The government had previously released race-based data, but Monday's information showed the gap created by the pandemic's impact on white and non-white Manitobans widened this spring. 

Ahmed said racialized Manitobans — more likely to be of lower-income means, working front-line jobs and living in crowded homes — are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

"Most of these populations, if one person caught COVID, it runs across the whole family," said Ahmed.

"If someone in Waverley Heights caught COVID, they have a place to isolate. They can stay in the basement for the rest of the 14 days."

Kim Le, who runs a Vietnamese restaurant, Banh Mi Khanh Hoa, and a travel agency, said the report's findings worry her. People from Vietnam are among the southeast Asians whose infection rate was more than 20 times greater than white Manitobans.

"I'm very concerned," she said, "not only for me, but for our family, for the community, for everyone."

Kim Le, who runs a travel agency and a restaurant, said the high COVID-19 infection rate among people of colour is tough news to hear. (Submitted by Kim Le)

Ray Aulakh, who works for the Punjabi radio station, Radio Awaz, said there is not enough tailored information in Punjabi about the virus or vaccines. 

Some people do not understand the seriousness of the virus, nor the accessibility of paid sick leave and vaccines. 

Confused callers

"We have been continually getting calls from people on whether they are eligible for vaccination or not. If they are students or on work permit, if they don't have a health card, how could they get a vaccination?" he said.

"There is not much information available in the public domain."

Aulakh said there is also a myth circulating that people from India are more immune to the virus because they were exposed to more infectious diseases growing up. 

He wants the Manitoba government to do a better job translating public health information to Punjabi. 

Manitoba has supported cultural inoculation clinics, like this one run by the Manitoba Inuit Association, to help encourage vaccinations. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

More members of his community are getting vaccinated, but he said there's still work to do. Of his 26 colleagues in the multiple jobs he works, only he and one other co-worker are vaccinated, he said.

Louise Simbandumwe, a member of the Immigration Matters in Canada coalition, said she's encouraged with the province communicating the ways it can improve. 

The province acknowledged Monday it would alter any future vaccination strategy. The reliance on an age-based rollout was detrimental to protecting BIPOC people, the government report stated.

It's clear from the report that if "vaccinations had been available based on those risk factors [affecting people of colour] that would have reduced the inequities that we saw around who got COVID," she said.

Fortunately, Simbandumwe said, the province recognized the risk factors facing First Nations peoples months ago and made each of them eligible for a vaccine at the same time as Manitobans 20 years their senior.

But overall, the dependency on an age-based rollout for vaccinations shows Manitoba was late to waking up to the detrimental effects of that decision, Ahmed said.

"They treated everybody else like the white person who lived in the suburbs of the city by basing it on ages," he said.

Manitoba has recently been tailoring its vaccination strategy to include more pop-up clinics organized by local groups to target areas with lower immunization rates

In the longer-term, Ahmed said Manitoba should address some of the structural issues holding back people of colour, such as their housing and wages.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Bartley Kives

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