Racism is a serious public health issue, says Etches

Dr. Vera Etches says her job is not just to control infectious diseases in the population, but to make sure everyone has equal chance to good health.

Racism is a serious public health issue, Ottawa Public Health says

3 years ago
Duration 0:50
Vera Etches, Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, says racism is associated with poor physical and mental health, and can therefore be counted alongside COVID-19 as a public health threat.

Ottawa's medical officer of health made sure to speak with reporters earlier than usual on Friday so that she and others could take part virtually in the afternoon march against racism.

"We need to address anti-black racism and racism in the community," said Dr. Vera Etches, who sees it not just as a societal but a public health issue, and a serious one.

"My job is not only to control infectious diseases, but also to promote the health of the population by working with others to ensure that there's fair opportunity for health."

Discrimination and stigma are directly linked to poorer mental and physical health, and higher mortality, she explained. Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is working with local immigration and health groups to get a fuller picture of what barriers some residents face in getting health care in Ottawa.

"We need better data to understand how racism affects people's health, but it's clear that it does. And we're not waiting for all of the data to act," she said, pointing to how OPH is changing its programs and services to reach those with the least advantage.

The challenge is far older and with deeper roots than the current focus on COVID-19, but the current pandemic has highlighted disparities.

Etches pointed to data released by Public Health Ontario this week that showed ethno-culturally diverse neighbourhoods in Ontario's cities have been much harder hit by COVID-19. 

The rate of infection was three times higher in the most diverse neighbourhoods compared to the least diverse, and those residents were twice as likely to die of the virus.

As for the march itself, Etches said some have presented it as a conflict between democracy and health, but she doesn't see it that way.

She said it's important for people to make their voices heard, and virtual participation was safest. For those who attended in person, she said it was important they keep the two-metre distance and shower afterward.

"It's a one-time event and it will make a difference, if the people who are showing up care about one another and do their part to wear a mask."