According to data provided exclusively to VICE News of Unifor, the union that represents about half of Northwood’s staff in Halifax, 239 of its 932 workers identify as black, Asian or “mixed race.” Of the 99 employees who, as of Sunday, were ill with COVID-19, 45 were in these groups.
The figures are accompanied by a warning from Linda MacNeil, Unifor’s Atlantic Regional Director: they were collected by Northwood and reflect the voluntary self-identification of staff, meaning that the actual number of people of color affected could be higher. Northwood did not respond to QUESTIONS or requests for comment from VICE. (We will update this story if we hear back.)
Ideally, there would be figures from a systematic process of collecting and publishing race-based data using clear and consistent terms and standards that would provide a clearer picture of how racialized staff in Northwood were hit harder by the epidemic.
Data such as the one collected in the United States showed that the pandemic killed blacks and Latinos at much higher rates. Experts say better collection of race-based data can identify and protect at-risk communities and ultimately save lives.
But despite years of evidence and arguments from health and human rights experts— and Unifor — this does not happen in much of Canada.
“It’s a huge, huge, huge, big problem,” said Damilola Iduye, a lecturer at Dalhousie’s School of Nursing.
Iduye’s research is looking at ways to improve the integration of internationally trained nurses into Nova Scotia’s health care system. She also leads a 600-member Facebook group for internationally educated nurses in the province.
It is not surprising that a disproportionate number of racialized workers are getting sick in Northwood.
The Northwood facility in Halifax is a not-for-profit facility and one of the largest nursing homes in Atlantic Canada. As of Sunday, 246 residents and 99 employees had fallen ill.
Constantly understaffed, Iduye said Northwood recruits nurses from all over the world. They are brought in as temporary foreign workers, hours as Continuing Care Assistants (CCAs), working in permanent residence and recertification as nurses in Nova Scotia, she said.
“You can imagine someone who has a precarious immigrant status in Canada and is happening now,” she said. “People operate out of fear: “If I don’t go to work, maybe I’ll lose my work permit.”
They work long hours in physically and emotionally exhausting work. The CPAs represented by Unifor of Northwood earn about $19 an hour, MacNeil said. Non-unionized positions can pay a few dollars more than the minimum wage, which is $12.55 in Nova Scotia.
“Many of them, they are their children’s primary caregivers at home, they are breadwinners, they still send money home,” Iduye said.
“Could it be that some people are sick and still have to go to work and can’t afford not to go to work? They have to pay their bills. Could that explain why? We don’t know,” she said. “When we don’t have an overview, we don’t even know what the problems are and what we can do to solve the problems.”
Beyond the issue of collecting data on the basis of race, she said that we need to take a closer look at these workers across Canada — mainly women, a lot of racialized people — and the conditions in which they work.
In Quebec, neighbourhood data released by Montreal Public Health finally showed that asylum seekers were most affected by outbreaks in long-term care homes.
In British Columbia, many front-line health care workers are Filipino. Rights groups have called on the B.C. government to collect race data to see if they are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
So why isn’t the information collected?
“Some people believe that Canada is a mosaic and that issues about race actually seem racist,” said Onye Nnorom, assistant director of the Public Health and Preventive Medicine Residency Program at the University of Toronto.
“When in fact we know in our country that racism and institutionalized racism are very entrenched in its systems and culture. So asking questions about race does not create racism, it helps us identify inequalities due to racism and we hope to act on them.
Her own work has shown that data can save lives and that she has been calling for it to be collected for years.
The proper collection and use of race-based data is complicated and will take work, she said, noting that indigenous groups have collected data about them for centuries, which has been widely used to harm them.
But COVID-19 has prompted some jurisdictions to do this work. Manitoba collects the data through an Aboriginal effort. Toronto boarded at the end of April. And the federal and Ontario governments said they looked into the legislation last week.
Back in Halifax, Iduye said she was happy to see the momentum, but she wished it hadn’t taken so long.
“It took this pandemic to really see that the system wasn’t working,” she said.
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