2020 was, in many ways, a year of reckoning. It brought to light the various ways in which our systems are set up to benefit some and not others depending on what they look like, sound like, or where they are assumed to come from. We need to ask ourselves what an equitable response looks like, because not all means of support satisfy communities and their needs in the same way. In order to make meaningful and lasting change, we must consider systemic oppressions and the ranges of positionality experienced by those who are marginalized in the creation of policy, support and other forms of COVID-19 response.

Intersectionality refers to the way that social categorizations such as race, ability, class and gender result in overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage. Consider a backpack – the more that is inside that backpack, the heavier it is to carry. The same can be said for those who are marginalized.

What is an Equitable Response?

Intersectionality refers to the way that social categorizations such as race, ability, class and gender result in overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage. Consider a backpack – the more that is inside that backpack, the heavier it is to carry. The same can be said for those who are marginalized; they have more to carry and more burdens to bear. These experiences can also overlap depending on one’s positionality — for example, a Black woman will experience the disadvantage and discrimination associated with both her race and her gender. An equitable response would supply more aid to those carrying the heaviest backpacks than to those whose backpacks are lighter, because those with the heaviest backpacks experience more of a disadvantage, face higher risks and require more support.

Similar considerations must be applied to COVID-19 responses, as “one situation fits all” solutions fail to effectively and equitably support our communities and their individual and unique needs. The ongoing response to COVID-19, if not equitable, will exacerbate these fissures in our systems and further harm those most vulnerable in our country — which in turn will affect us all.

An Equitable Response to COVID-19

Some emergency relief and response efforts, such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), appear to be inclusive and equitable, as they identified an immediate need and are attached to needs-based criteria. In fact, they offer equal treatment for all, once an applicant meets the basic eligibility. Others, such as Ontario’s recently announced Isolation Centres for “hardest hit communities,” are an example of a more equitable approach.

A truly equitable response would identify the desired end result – for example, a healthy and financially secure community – and evaluate what each community needs to achieve this goal. This assessment would come from an inclusive, intersectional perspective grounded in the knowledge that needs, like people, intersect. For example, someone who provides care for an elderly relative and has children who need to access remote learning technology may require multiple levels of support. An equitable response to COVID-19 requires multi-sector cooperation, ideally led by all levels of government.

It is easy to dismiss the goal of an equitable response as too lofty or difficult, requiring too many resources. We disagree. In this article, we share actionable recommendations for how Canada can build a more equitable response to the impact COVID-19 is having on all of its communities.

Last summer, The Mosaic Institute conducted 11 interviews with 10 diverse community organizations across Ontario, seeking their input on how to improve race relations. These conversations, conducted during a time of communal grief and cautious optimism, resulted in six recommendations aimed at decision-makers. Some of the recommendations appear to be simple changes (e.g. capitalizing the words Black and Indigenous), while others require a long, deep audit of past and current policies and institutional behaviour (e.g. implementing systemic change). It is our hope that readers will carefully reflect on these recommendations and implement as many as possible as we all seek to improve race relations in Ontario.

We know that the COVID-19 response has not been equitable, with vulnerable communities being left out, vilified and further marginalized.  In a recent survey, we found that 24 per cent of respondents knew someone who had experienced online hate due to COVID-19.  The recommendations below, drawing from the voices of community members most affected by racism in Ontario, offer significant insight on how to equitably respond to COVID-19.

Those most affected by COVID-19 tend to be racialized, lower-income, frontline workers. However, government public consultation processes around COVID-19 recovery tend to exclude those most affected by their policies, whether through limited opportunities for engagement or a lack of information in accessible language.

Recommendations Overview

These recommendations reflect the various suggestions elicited during the consultations. None of the ideas, therefore, are Mosaic’s or reflect a consensus among the participants, but rather share the main themes that arose during the interviews and the subsequent qualitative analysis. Below, we reflect on how four of these recommendations might be applied to an equitable COVID-19 response.

1.      Increase Community Engagement

  1. Address language barriers in surveys
  2. Consult the Community

2.      Reconceptualize the research process and data collection

  1. Collect disaggregated data
  2. Reconfigure and reconcile the data collection process

Those most affected by COVID-19 tend to be racialized, lower-income, frontline workers. However, government public consultation processes around COVID-19 recovery tend to exclude those most affected by their policies, whether through limited opportunities for engagement or a lack of information in accessible language. Reconfiguring the data collection process to include the most affected sectors and communities would require an overhaul of the current consultation apparatus, but would also generate better foundations for smart policy- and decision-making.

We have seen the problems arising from language barriers and lack of race-based disaggregated data as Canada rolls out its federal, provincial and municipal COVID-19 responses. Meaningful community consultation could alleviate some of these issues by bringing the real pain points to the forefront. This recommendation doesn’t mean that you stop speaking to those you are already speaking to – it means that you also include those who will be affected and who are not typically included in your data collection.

Since the pandemic began, community voices and Canadian experiences have been typically captured by polls, surveys and studies conducted by community groups or social research companies. For example, the Canadian Arab Institute has launched a ground-breaking community-based research project to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on equity-seeking groups across Canada. This investigation, the first of its kind, examines pandemic impacts on members of the Arab, Black, Hispanic, South Asian and Indigenous communities across Canada. It aims to illuminate the challenges faced by each group, with the mission of informing the development of post-pandemic policies and processes. These types of community engagements, conducted in multiple languages and across the country with a focus on those most affected, result in the nuanced data policy-makers need to create an equitable response to COVID-19.

3.      Re-think Education

  1. Change the Ontario curriculum
  2. Use open dialogue
  3. Educate holistically – show the connections between systemic racism, oppression and white supremacy
  4. Go beyond professional development and training days – have more holistic approaches to anti-racism

The same considerations required to produce a truly equitable response to COVID-19 must also inform an accessible and equitable pivot to virtual, hybrid and adapted in-person learning. The pandemic has exposed many pre-existing inequities within the education system: students across the country have been adapting to a learning environment that privileges those with larger homes, better technology, and someone available to assist. Ontario’s e-learning pivot has failed to adequately adapt to the obstacles to access, including but not limited to special education needs, the stresses of online learning on parents and students and the needs of Black, Indigenous and students of colour. These needs have instead been met by community organizations, informal support networks or individual school boards.

Teachers are also struggling with the changes. Classrooms are under-funded and under-resourced, and teachers are under-supported, confused and burnt out. Current in-person classroom sizes have resulted in teachers and students struggling to social distance, COVID-19 rates in students steadily increasing. Some teachers have even reported assignments to teach triple split classes, teaching, marking and creating three separate grades of curriculum in an already high-stress environment. How are we supporting the mental health of teachers and students?

While COVID-19 completely shook the province, Ontario’s education funding formula has left the school system struggling for two decades. Perhaps rather than asking how we can solve the issues the pandemic has raised, our recommendations confirm that we need to take a step back and address the systematic issues that left the education system in its current state and exacerbated the effects of COVID-19. As we reimagine our education system and assure its success during and after the pandemic, we must root learning and education in “anti-racist, anti-oppression and culturally relevant and responsive approaches.”

4.      Implement systemic and structural change

  1. Action must work to be systemic
  2. Education alone is not enough
  3. Surface-level changes will not last
  4. Do not wait on public will

We have seen various racialized communities vilified in the media and a rise of hate-related incidents towards Asian-Canadians. This suggestion that certain ethnocultural communities are more at fault for the rise in Canada’s COVID-19 infection rates is harmful – both to an equitable recovery and to social cohesion in Canada. This type of rhetoric ignores the fact that the frontline workers who have kept our economy going, our children educated, and our bodies fed are often the very same folks who are being accused of not doing their part.

Experts across the country have called on governments of all levels to go beyond individualized PPE measures and implement real socio-economic changes that would enable all Canadians  to safely isolate – recommendations such as emergency sick leave; paid sick leave; rapid testing; and a moratorium on evictions. The focus on whether individuals are “doing enough” is part of the reason various groups are being blamed for not following the rules; when, in reality, if some of these supports were in place, those in vulnerable communities would be able to “stay home” the way those in secure positions are able to.

Focusing on action-oriented options that reach the most vulnerable will inevitably trickle up to those more secure. Public will – always fickle – will most likely also shift in favour when they see a reduction in the case numbers, due to an increased support system for those most vulnerable to infection – our elderly, those precariously employed, our students, and those without shelter.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has changed the way in which we interact with and view the world. It has also shed light on some of our darkest practices, that exclude, discriminate and harm the most vulnerable members of our communities. Our recommendations offer actionable steps to improve race relations in Canada and create a more equitable response to COVID-19.

It is also necessary to be aware of one’s own positionality, particularly considering areas of privilege. In order to make a long-lasting change, we must consider systemic oppressions and the ranges of positionality experienced by those who are marginalized. Regardless of your role(s), intersectional lived experience, or location: if you are reading this article, there is at least one of those recommendations that you can implement right now. We sincerely hope that you do.

Author(s)

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Rachel Mansell is the Vice President of Operations at The Mosaic Institute, a think-and-do tank based in Toronto.

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Alexis Carlota Cochrane is the Communications Specialist at The Mosaic Institute, a think-and-do tank based in Toronto.