Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is facing steep criticism for failing to denounce a group of mostly white people protesting COVID-19 restrictions in Calgary on Saturday—after partly blaming the province’s alarming increase in infections on the South Asian community.
Alberta now accounts for nearly one-quarter of all active cases in Canada with 15,692.
The province also has more cases than Quebec and Ontario, despite being one-third and one-quarter the size people-wise, respectively.
Hundreds of Calgarians ignored the 10-person cap on outdoor gatherings and protested the relatively lax restrictions on Saturday, but Kenney remained tight-lipped on the matter all weekend, CTV News reported.
Kenney did have words for the province’s South Asian community though.
“Let me be absolutely blunt and get to the point,” Kenney said on RED FM, a South Asian radio station in Calgary. “The largest spread in the province is in northeast Calgary and we see a very high level of spread of COVID-19 in the South Asian community.”
“I don’t say that to blame or target anyone,” Kenney immediately added. “We know that it’s a tradition to have big family gatherings at home and we think this is one of the reasons why we have seen a much higher level spread in the community.”
In an email to VICE World News, Kenney’s spokesperson, Christine Myatt, said, “I reject the premise of your inquiry.”
She then linked out to several reports about how South Asians tend to live in multigenerational homes as well as to statistics that show disproportionately high COVID-19 mortality rates in ethnic neighbourhoods.
“I realize that some might try to stoke controversy where none exists, but media—including the CBC—have reported widely on this,” Myatt said. She then linked out to stories that say South Asians are at higher risk for COVID-19 and should stay home during holidays like Diwali.
Myatt did not say why Kenney refuses to denounce the white rallygoers in Calgary on Saturday.
Northeast Calgary is home to about 115,000 people, 1,194 of whom currently have COVID-19—the highest number anywhere in the province, according to Government of Alberta data. The area with the second highest number of active COVID-19 cases is Edmonton Northgate with 623.
RED FM host Rishi Nagar suggested to Kenney that a lot of people in northeast Calgary are immigrants who work in essential services, including as taxi drivers and transit drivers, who can’t work from home.
“This is not about pointing fingers at anybody. To the contrary, those who are on the frontlines and cannot stay and work from home deserve special support and recognition,” Kenney said. “But what we’re saying is the single biggest thing that people can do to prevent the spread would be not to have visitors at home, no social gatherings.”
Last week, Kenney introduced new measures to combat COVID-19, but many experts say he didn’t go far enough. For now, all indoor gatherings are cancelled and outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people. But unlike parts of British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, where dine-in restaurants and bars are temporarily closed, Albertans can still dine in.
“If Albertans were to be ‘blunt and honest’ the way Kenney was, we would conclude that the reason Kenney looks the other way from multiple anti-mask protests without safety precautions is because the protesters are predominantly Caucasian,” said Calgary doctor Mukarram Zaidi in a statement.
Zaidi called Kenney’s treatment of South Asians a “microaggression” and said the premier is blaming ethnic groups without connecting the virus to socio-economic barriers that force racialized people and immigrants onto the pandemic front lines.
In Brampton, Ontario, which has a high South Asian population, COVID-19 rates are also disproportionately high, largely because many people in the area work in essential services.
People of colour are more likely to work high-risk jobs that expose them to others. Statistics Canada found Black and Filipino workers are more likely to work in healthcare for low pay, for example. In Alberta, a series of COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants earlier this year disproportionately affected Filipino migrant workers. While data in Canada is limited, Toronto started gathering race-based pandemic data in May and found that racialized residents make up 83 percent of COVID-19 infections, despite accounting for half the population.
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