How tracking ethnicity and occupation data is helping fight COVID-19

The knock on Sanjay Chada’s door was unexpected. 

It was a woman from Indus Community Services, a non-profit that serves the large South Asian population of Peel Region, located just west of Toronto. She wanted to know if anyone over 18 had not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine.

Chada said his 29-year-old son, Akash, was the only one.

“She took my phone number and left,” said Chada. “After an hour, we got a call with a vaccine appointment for him.

“It took me three weeks to get my shot after I made an appointment. He got his in three days.”

Brampton, Ont., where Chada’s family lives, was one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 in Canada. But it’s also been ground zero for massive campaigns to get people vaccinated against and educated about the disease. 

Indus, along with other community groups, has been able to play a crucial role because Peel’s regional government has been radically transparent with its COVID-19 data, disclosing details about outbreak locations, making public the race of people who test positive and providing caseload maps broken down to sub-neighbourhood levels.

“It showed us early on that the South Asian community in Peel was being disproportionately impacted by the disease,” said Indus CEO Gurpreet Malhotra.

In most of the country, this would be impossible because such detailed information is either not collected or not made public.

An Indus Community Services information booth is shown outside the student centre on Sheridan’s Davis Campus in Brampton, Ont., where a vaccine clinic was being held. (CBC)

Flying blind

We compared COVID-19 data published by every province and region. Only a handful publish data on race, income, occupation and neighbourhood-specific breakdowns of infections and vaccinations — information that health officials and community leaders say helps them intervene quickly in hotspots. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) requests this data from the provinces, but spokesperson Anna Madison said it is selectively and inconsistently reported, with only half of provinces sending data on race and occupation.

She declined to say which provinces do not report this information.

If there are future waves of COVID-19, or other new health crises, most parts of the country will be flying blind, putting racialized Canadians and those in frontline occupations at risk, say researchers and community leaders interviewed by CBC News.

“South of the border, they’ve got data on income, race, occupation, which shows disparities. In the U.K., they’ve got data on race, income and occupation, which shows disparities,”  said Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, an urban health think-tank in Toronto.

“In Canada, we’re not collecting. So something’s going wrong.”

How data helped avert a crisis

In many ways, Peel Region was set up for a crisis — but also for a solution.

One-third of its 1.5 million residents are of South Asian descent, and many households are either multi-family or multi-generational. Two nearby colleges, Sheridan and Humber, host a large number of international students, many of whom rent spare rooms in local homes, sometimes several to a space.

Peel is also home to huge Amazon fulfilment centres, a Canada Post sorting facility, Toronto Pearson International Airport and essential industrial facilities that have set up next to the airport — all places where many of these students work part time.

“A lot of these students … can’t sit at home. They’re not getting money from back home. They don’t have the benefit of taking two weeks off work if they get sick,” Chada said.

All ideal conditions for a virus that spreads through prolonged close contact.

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