Toronto

Communities hit hardest by COVID-19 need more long-term support from city, advocates say

Nearly a month after the city released data showing 83 per cent of Toronto's COVID-19 cases affect Black people and other people of colour, community associations say they are concerned about a lack of long-term investment by the city in the hardest hit neighbourhoods.

Groups say health inequities are the reason why the pandemic hit people of colour the hardest

Health authorities set up a COVID-19 testing centre in June after identifying Thorncliffe as a high risk neighbourhood. Community advocates say lower-income residents need more city support to cope with the pandemic. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Nearly a month after the city released data showing 83 per cent of Toronto's COVID-19 cases affect Black people and other people of colour, community associations say they are concerned about a lack of long-term investment by the city in the hardest hit neighbourhoods.

With concerns about a second wave of the novel coronavirus in the fall, the city needs to make further commitments to tackle long-standing health inequities, community associations have told CBC News. 

"There just seems to be a lack of a fully coordinated kind of approach overall ... Go find out what people actually need," said Floydeen Charles-Fridal, executive director of Caribbean African Canadian Social Services (CAFCAN) located in Glenfield-Jane Heights, one of the neighbourhoods more severely affected by COVID-19.

"Why hasn't there been more visibility of Toronto Public Health in the communities that have the higher density of Black populations? Why hasn't there been some targeted public awareness campaigns in communities?" she asked. 

Long-term, larger-scale planning needed, advocate says

Neighbourhoods like the ones Charles-Fridal is talking about need more communication from public health officials and more planning, advocates say.

They say COVID-19 information in multiple languages and affordable, safe child care are just some of the elements that would better prepare these communities for the pandemic as it moves into the colder months. 

The data released by Toronto Public Health on July 30 shows Black people make up 21 per cent of reported cases in the city, while representing only nine per cent of the population. 

The findings were in line with a previous report by the city that found lower-income neighbourhoods with a higher percentage of immigrants and people of colour were most affected by COVID-19. 

But people of colour who live in those areas have been vocal about health inequities long before these reports were published, said Charles-Fridal.

"The reality is, all the pandemic has done for us as Black people and people of African descent in this city, is it's really brought to light what we've been living with anyways … our realities," she said. 

Neighbourhoods that have been most severely affected by COVID-19 include York University Heights, Downsview-Roding-CFB, Rouge, Weston and Woburn. 

While the city is reopening, the harder-hit neighbourhoods are still determining how to deal with issues like the spread of the virus in buildings with high population density where residents cannot isolate properly, said Charles-Fridal. 

Concerns about housing insecurity are echoed in a new report by the Wellesley Institute, a research group focused on dismantling health inequities, released Wednesday. 

The report shows the pandemic and recession that resulted from the ensuing lockdown have created mass rental arrears and evictions that disproportionately affect Black Canadians and their health. 

Data released by Toronto Public Health reveals that systemic inequities have made high-density communities with low-income residents particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. 1:58

Under the circumstances, the city has been providing solid support to organizations like CAFCAN — but the long-term planning has been missing from the equation, said Charles-Fridal.

She pointed to initiatives like mobile testing for COVID-19 in more vulnerable neighbourhoods as crucial moves by Toronto Public Health (TPH), but she said those testing units should have been set up months ago, as communities have been clear about the health inequities they've been facing. 

Toronto implemented mobile testing sites last month in the city's northwest end where COVID-19 rates are higher than in other neighbourhoods.

Testing is under the Ontario government's purview and the province is providing $100 million for public health units to help expand testing in priority neighbourhoods, said the Ministry of Health in a statement to CBC News.

A mobile COVID-19 testing site was set up inside Christian Centre Church in North York in July. It was the first community mobile site in Toronto's hard-hit northwest region. More of these sites are needed along with stronger community engagement overall, advocates say. (Philippe De Montigny/CBC)

TPH said in a written statement it is consulting with community organizations that serve groups who are over-represented in the COVID-19 data.. The agency said it is "focused" on health promotion messaging, recommending areas to focus testing, and engaging in longer-term planning for a "more equitable" system of health and social services.

However, Charles-Fridal called those approaches"band-aid" solutions and she said all levels of government need to work more efficiently together..

More mobile testing, isolation centres coming: TPH chair

Meanwhile, there's optimism that more mobile testing will be coming to neighbourhoods that need it most, said Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the city's board of health.

The city is also getting funding from the federal government for isolation facilities, where those who live in housing that makes it impossible to self-isolate can do so safely. 

Cressy says he's optimistic the centres can open at the start of September. 

"I'm hoping that COVID represents a turning point for tackling health inequities by all levels of government," he said. 

Back-to-school supports needed in high-priority areas: advocate

With the return to school around the corner, there's also a need for more supports for students in high-priority areas, advocates say.

Neighbourhoods already struggling with crowding and poverty will also have an even tougher time controlling the virus if children in those areas attend schools that aren't as well prepared, said Paul Bailey, president of the Black Health Alliance, a community-based charity.

Bailey said affordable child-care and after-school programs can sometimes be missing in those neighbourhoods.

He said the city needs to create a long-term strategy to tackle housing, investment in schools and public infrastructure so people in at-risk communities can get the resources they need to live healthy lives, said Bailey. 

"We should be trying to build a more robust health system," he said.

"The provincial and municipal governments need to be working in collaboration to address these types of issues.

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