As calls continue to collect race-based data on the COVID-19 pandemic, some experts say what we really need to know is how culture factors into health and social realities.
Reza Afshari, a professor at UBC’s School of Public and Population Health, points out that “race” is actually an old concept because the genetic differences between racial groups is very low.
He suggests ethnicity is better information to collect. What we need to know is how different groups live, he says, and what their shared health concerns are.
“If in a community, say, obesity is higher, the severity of disease, including COVID-19 would be higher. The number of deaths would be higher, so we need extra messages," Afshari told CTV News.
He says collecting some sort of ethnic data is a good idea. It would allow policy makers to direct their messages and target interventions to help reduce the impact on minority groups.
Health officials from B.C. say a survey earlier this year found that people of colour were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. That’s attributed to how people live, and Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters Thursday she’s not surprised the South Asian community is disproportionately getting infected by the virus. It’s about how people come together.
“I know many of my colleagues and friends who are from South Asian communities for example, you know, having two or 300 people in your immediate family is normal and is important and is part of how life is lived," she said. "And these are things, unfortunately, that this virus can exploit. It doesn't recognize who we are but it recognizes ... when we're in crowded situations indoors."
Recently, a Statistics Canada study compiled data and found B.C. neighbourhoods with high rates of visible minorities had morbidity rates that were 10 times higher when adjusted for age. Yet we can’t say they’re all people of colour, because the province doesn’t collect that information, despite calls to do so.
On Nov. 6, the federal government released a new COVID-19 data collection form. Yet Ottawa can’t compel provinces or territories to use it, and at this time, the Public Health Agency of Canada can’t say if any provinces are using it.
In a statement, the PHAC said a number of provinces and territories "have indicated their readiness to provide race-based data, while several others are actively working towards collecting and sharing this data."
B.C.'s Health Ministry said it would take too much time, particularly as skyrocketing COVID-19 cases have already put a strain on health resources.
"We continue working with our national counterparts to move towards more race-based data collection in B.C., and support other methods, including public engagement and surveys, to collect disaggregated data to help determine the impact on different populations," the ministry said in a statement. "But our primary resources have to be directed to managing the pandemic at this time."
Sabrina Wong, a professor in Health Services and Nursing, said while it would be useful to have information about specific groups, she believes health officials know where the virus is, and who is impacted. She says a better use of time would be to develop policies now – to help those hit hardest.
“if you think about the investment that it would take to stand a system up to collect these data that are potentially controversial versus the government spending that money to address the social determinants of health -- social housing or poverty, or why there could be potentially these huge outbreaks in communities of particular visible minorities, I would rather have the government be spending the money that way," she said.
Wong also pointed out that places – like the U.S. – that do collect the data, haven’t actually addressed the underlying issues that are risk factors.
“So, it's much better to think about the complexities, and the intersections of the different social determinants of health than simply to focus and use race, as a proxy measure for absolutely everything.”