Seher Shafiq is a managing editor of First Policy Response and Active Citizenship Manager at North York Community House.

This weekend, I was shocked to read an op/ed in the Toronto Star titled “South Asians play a part in COVID-19 transmission and we need to acknowledge it,” co-written by three South Asian doctors. While it shares some beautiful aspects of my culture, it lacks a solid understanding of why racialized communities, including South Asians, have had disproportionately higher rates of COVID in Canada.

The piece risks pathologizing an entire race by using culture and values as explanations for higher COVID rates, stigmatizing already marginalized communities.

South Asians do account for a higher proportion of COVID-19 cases as compared to their share of the population, but that is true across most racialized groups in Canada. In Toronto, Black people and people of colour account for 79 per cent of COVID cases while comprising about half of the population, according to the most recent Toronto Public Health data. For each non-White ethnic subgroup, with the exception of East Asians, COVID rates are disproportionately higher than their share of the population.

There is complexity behind this data that goes far deeper than South Asian “culture” or “values.” In particular, the authors understate the role of income levels and unemployment or underemployment. Income is a critical factor in the spread of COVID – not because, as the editorial suggests, it discourages people from getting COVID tests, but because it means these populations are forced to risk exposure to the virus as part of their jobs in the service industry and gig economy. Many of these workers then come home to multi-generational, high-occupancy homes that have less space for isolation, and thus the virus is quickly transmitted to family members.

South Asians, like their other racialized peers on the frontlines of this pandemic, are disproportionately employed in precarious jobs in the service industry and gig economy – brewing Tim Hortons coffee, bagging groceries and delivering UberEats orders. This means they are exposed to the virus in their day-to-day lives, as opposed to those working from home who are generally isolated and spend workdays attending Zoom meetings on their laptops.

In fact, the pandemic-induced recession has resulted in disproportionately higher unemployment rates among visible minority groups, with a pronounced impact on South Asians.

In its most recent Labour Force Survey, Statistics Canada found that the group hardest hit by the pandemic recession in October was South Asians. The unemployment rate for South Asians rose by 1.4 percentage points in October, while it fell 0.3 points for White Canadians. The total unemployment rate for South Asians is 13.8 per cent, compared to 8.9 per cent overall.

This labour market issue indirectly translates to higher COVID transmission rates in this community. Precarious work and underemployment make it far more likely that workers will choose to take a crowded bus to a low-paying job where they are constantly exposed to people who may transmit the virus. And someone who is precariously employed is more likely to go to work when they are sick rather than lose a paycheque.

Lastly, the article gives the example of South Asian cultural celebrations spreading COVID, the most obvious and recent being Diwali. To be clear, holding a large gathering of any kind is irresponsible behaviour and should not be happening. But let’s not forget that Thanksgiving gatherings in Canada just a month ago contributed to a significant rise in cases – and those cultural celebrations were not met with the same shaming and blaming.

Income, unemployment and underemployment are all social determinants of health that cannot be ignored when analyzing why a particular demographic is facing disproportionately high rates of COVID-19. There are complex, multi-dimensional reasons for higher COVID-19 rates in specific communities. To downplay that complexity and chalk it up to a race’s “culture” and “values” is simply lazy.

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