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Dryden: Racist responses to COVID‑19 continue to place all of us at greater risk

Posted by Dr. OmiSoore Dryden on September 3, 2020 in News
Dr. OmiSoore Dryden is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies
Dr. OmiSoore Dryden is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies

*This op-ed was originally posted by the Chronicle Herald on September 2, 2020

Black people are living in a moment with multiple public health crises: COVID-19, police brutality and anti-Black racism. Racism impacts our health; racist responses to COVID-19 continue to place all of us at greater risk.

Shortly after the pandemic started to take hold in Canada, we began to see how systemic racism and racist stereotypes were impacting not only the information regarding spread, but also producing stigma around those who contracted and transmitted COVID. In January 2020, I tweeted a caution about how outbreaks become a vehicle for perpetuating racism and racist stereotypes. And unfortunately, we have seen numerous examples of exactly this. One troubling tool that public health agencies in Canada have used to respond to COVID is the use of police to monitor, ticket and incarcerate those suspected of transmitting COVID-19. These actions turn the process of contracting and spreading COVID into criminal acts. They also reveal how some people who contract COVID are thought of as victims, whereas others, sadly, are blamed.

In spring 2020, Alexander McClelland, among others, wrote and spoke about the importance of stepping away from this process of criminalizing COVID-19. The dispatch of police to deal with public health issues follows a disturbing trend and instead, public health and community agencies should respond to breaches of health protocol, instead of giving someone a ticket, instead identify the supports required and then meet those needs.

When police are employed to monitor and manage public health orders, the contracting and spreading of the coronavirus becomes a criminal matter. We learned this from the HIV/AIDS crisis — we have already seen the tragic outcomes when treating HIV transmission as a criminal matter, and Black communities and Black men paid the price.

I believe we are again at this breach: Black communities and Black men will be (and are) criminalized and penalized through COVID-19. And those of us in the Atlantic bubble should be very very concerned.

Black people have been victimized by unfair and criminal policing practices. Black people have been victimized by health disparities and inequities. The data reflects this: Black people are six times more likely to be street checked in Nova Scotia than others; in Toronto Black people are 20 times more likely to die at the hands of police. The early Canadian disaggregated race-based data on COVID-19 identifies racism as a clear risk factor for COVID-19 and yet, Black people are not thought of as victims in need of care and support, but as perpetrators who should be punished, ostracized and incarcerated.

In an April 7th briefing, the Premier and Chief Medical Office scolded residents of Preston township for breaking public health orders and spreading COVID-19. This was the first time we saw a shift in tone: previously, the Chief Medical Officer encouraged people *not* to call the police on their neighbours, but instead to reach out to see if there were any supports needed. Up until this point, the Chief Medical Officer also refused to name communities that had clusters — until one occurred in an African Nova Scotian community.

The Premier and the Chief Medical Officer’s behaviour and language exacerbated longstanding anti-Black racial tensions, further stigmatizing members of the Preston township.

Community meetings and an Open Letter demanded the creation of a culturally responsive pandemic plan. Rather than COVID-19 being the “great equalizer” it was purported to be, the realities of the social determinants of health, specifically racism, mean that Black communities suffered disproportionately through the disease.

The ease with which the Premier and Chief Medical Officer named the Preston township — and the resulting backlash against the community — signals yet again the longstanding active racism in the region. Little thought or kindness was extended to the Preston township. Naming the cluster area only served to call for greater surveillance and more punitive responses. Punishment is not an appropriate public health response — it exacerbates and furthers illness.

In late May 2020 there were two new coronavirus cases in New Brunswick attributed to a Black physician. Premier Higgs revealed that the name of this physician was passed onto the Mounties to determine if charges should be laid. And although the Premier and Registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick claimed they could not speak about the events, they provided enough information that served to identify the doctor. Much like the premier of Nova Scotia, the premier of New Brunswick chose to stoke the fires of fear by calling the not yet publicly named person an “irresponsible individual,” which only served as a call for more intolerance and violence. Once identified, Dr. Ngola became the target of violent racist harassment, including death threats. Publicly considering charging Dr. Ngola is an over-reaction, and reflects how COVID-19 is being used to further criminalize Black people. There have been no calls to charge any other non-Black physicians. The media coverage of this situation further reflected the anti-Black racism embedded in Canadian society: Dr. Ngola was repeatedly identified despite no charges actually being laid, described as being from the Congo and therefore not fully Canadian, had unsubstantiated allegations reproduced and had identifying information about him published. Dr. Ngola hired a private investigator to conduct his own investigation into the claims made against him.

In July, a young Francophone Black man was arrested and charged with violating the Public Health Act in PEI. Javan Mizero Nsangira, 22, an international student from the Congo has been in Canada for two years and is learning English, and now becomes the only person in Canada to be jailed in an alleged violation of COVID-19 protocols. Javan’s case will come to court on September 3. I do not wish to speak about the case here, but I do want to state that this action is excessive. The push for punitive measures often harms those most vulnerable. As a visiting student, what local supports does Javan have that are needed to support self-isolation? And why did the province not provide those supports to Javan? If Javan had broken quarantine, why not find out what supports are needed for him to maintain self-isolation?

And it is important to think about whether this information was shared with Javan in French. Was any of the communication with this young man in French, one of Canada’s two official languages, or was he spoken to in English and expected to clearly convey himself and thoughts in English? Containing the pandemic should never be placed in the hands of policing and police officers. What does jailing Javan accomplish? Why is Javan a perpetrator and not a victim of COVID-19? The incarceration of Javan makes him a target of racism and racist violence, like the Preston Township in Nova Scotia and Dr. Ngola in New Brunswick

As Black people in the Atlantic bubble, we need to be very concerned about these increasing punitive responses to COVID-19, which reflect how anti-Black racism impacts our lives daily.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from these three troubling examples: COVID-19 pandemic information needs to be culturally appropriate; testing should be widespread and accessible; public health — and not law enforcement — should respond to the disease; and Black individuals and communities should absolutely not be placed at further risk by public identification.

Racism is a social determinant of health that has negative impacts on our lives. Anti-Black racism must be accounted for in day-to-day practices of policing and public health. In Canada — and the Atlantic bubble — it is killing us more than any disease.