Councillor calls for race-based data on COVID-19

Rawlson King, Ottawa's first black councillor, wants public health officials to collect race-based data on how COVID-19 is affecting different demographic groups in the city.

Respiratory illness hitting minorities harder than others in some U.S. jurisdictions

A person wearing a mask passes a sign in Toronto, where public health officials are preparing to track race-based data on COVID-19. An Ottawa city councillor would like this city to follow Toronto's lead. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Is COVID-19 affecting Ottawa's black citizens differently? 

That's what the city councillor for Rideau-Rockcliffe wants to know, and he's asking for data to back up his concerns.

A disturbing trend has surfaced in the United States, where a disproportionate number of black and Latino residents have died from the respiratory illness caused by the virus. In Chicago, for example, black residents make up 30 per cent of the city's population but represent more than 70 per cent of its COVID-19-related deaths.

Toronto Public Health is set to begin tracking race-based data to get a better picture of those impacted by COVID-19, with a view to adjusting public health practices.  

Coun. Rawlson King wants Ottawa to follow Toronto's lead. He says advocates in the black community have been calling for this kind of research even before COVID-19.

"Black community members in Ottawa have long called for government-funded health and social service agencies to basically leverage disaggregated data in order to identify race-based disparities in outcomes, including health and education," King told CBC's Ottawa Morning. "The COVID-19 public health crisis is really accentuating the fact that we need that data."

Coun. Rawlson King is worried Ottawa's black community is at higher risk from COVID-19. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The purpose isn't to point fingers, but to seek out solutions, King said.

"It's really important for us to have … race-based data collected in order for us to really design a better health-care system, and have better planning and resource allocations available for the community."

Province unwilling to collect data

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has so far been unwilling to collect this data.

Earlier this month, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, David Williams, said the groups most at risk are the elderly, people with underlying conditions and those with compromised immune systems. "So those are all priorities to us, regardless of race, ethnic or other backgrounds. They're all equally important to us," Williams said at the time.

King is hoping for a change of heart. "I know that the previous Liberal government was … moving toward the integration of disaggregated data in the health-care milieu. I think that the province should continue with that approach."

But even if the province won't collect such data, the City of Ottawa can and should, according to King, who became Ottawa's first black city councillor when he was elected in 2018.

'Work is ongoing,' OPH says

On Monday, King will send a letter to Ottawa Public Health (OPH) outlining what community advocates are saying, including comments from a virtual town hall meeting on Saturday during which King said "that sentiment was echoed loud and clear that people do want to see disaggregated data in the mix."

According OPH, Ottawa's top doctor, Vera Etches, is committed to tracking this information. "Work is ongoing, and will be shared publicly once completed," OPH said in an emailed statement.

King is concerned COVID-19 has a disproportionate effect on people with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

"In conjunction with that, many racialized people, many black people … are actually the people who are providing essential services, whether it's the registered nurses … to the people who are handling groceries for you in the store or making deliveries," he said.

"We have great public health officials … who are utilizing evidence in order to make decisions around [COVID-19], and this would just be another tool in their tool box."

With files from CBC's Ottawa Morning

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