Although they are only a quarter of the workforce at one of Canada’s worst hit long-term care facilities, people of colour make up half of the COVID-19 cases among staff there.
Nearly all coronavirus deaths in Nova Scotia have been linked to Northwood’s Halifax facility, with 53 out of the province’s 61 deaths.
According to data exclusively provided to VICE News from Unifor, the union that represents about half of Northwood’s Halifax staff, 239 of its 932 workers identify as Black, Asian, or “mixed race.” Of the 99 employees who, as of Sunday, have been sick with COVID-19, 45 were from these groups.
The numbers come with a warning from Linda MacNeil, Unifor’s Atlantic Regional Director: they were collected by Northwood and reflect voluntary self-identification from staff, meaning the true number of people of colour affected could be higher. Northwood did not respond to VICE’s questions or requests for comment. (We'll update this story if we hear back.)
Ideally, there’d be numbers from a systematic process of collecting and publishing race-based data using clear, consistent terms and standards that would provide a clearer picture of how Northwood’s racialized staff were hit harder by the outbreak.
Data like that gathered in the U.S. has shown the pandemic has killed Black and Latino people at much higher rates. Experts say better race-based data collection can identify and protect communities at risk and ultimately save lives.
“It’s a huge, huge, huge, huge, big problem,” Damilola Iduye, a lecturer at Dalhousie’s School of Nursing, said.
Iduye’s research looks at ways to improve the integration of internationally-educated nurses into Nova Scotia’s health care system. She also runs a 600-member Facebook group for internationally-educated nurses in the province.
She’s not surprised a disproportionate number of racialized workers got sick at Northwood.
Northwood’s Halifax facility is not-for-profit and one of the largest nursing homes in Atlantic Canada. As of Sunday, 246 residents and 99 staff had gotten sick.
Perpetually understaffed, Iduye said Northwood recruits nurses from all over the world. They’re brought in as temporary foreign workers, putting in hours as continuing care assistants (CCA), working toward permanent residency and recertification as nurses in Nova Scotia, she said.
“You can imagine someone who has a precarious immigration status in Canada and now COVID happens,” she said. “People operate out of fear: ‘If I don’t go to work, maybe I will lose my work permit.’”
They work long hours in a physically and emotionally gruelling job. Northwood’s Unifor-represented CCAs make around $19 an hour, MacNeil said. Non-unionized positions can pay a few dollars over minimum wage, which is $12.55 in Nova Scotia.
“Many of them, they are the primary caregiver to their kids at home, they are the breadwinners in their family, they still send money home,” Iduye said.
“Could it be that some people were sick and they still had to go work and they could not afford to stay off work? They have to pay their bills. Could that explain why? We don’t know,” she said. “When we don’t have the full picture, we don’t even know what the problems are and what we can do to solve the problems.”
Beyond the issue of race-based data collection, she said we need to look closer at these workers across Canada—mostly women, many racialized—and the conditions they’re working in.
In Quebec, neighbourhood data released by Montreal Public Health ultimately showed asylum seekers bore the brunt of outbreaks at long-term care homes.
In B.C., many frontline healthcare workers are Filipino. Advocacy groups have asked the B.C. government to collect race-based data to see if they’re disproportionately hit by the pandemic.
So why isn’t the information collected?
“Some people believe that Canada is a mosaic and so asking about race actually sounds racist,” said Onye Nnorom, Associate Program 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 is very much embedded in its systems and culture. So asking about race does not create racism, it helps us to identify inequalities due to racism and hopefully act on them.”
Collecting and using race-based data properly is complicated and will take work, she said, pointing out that Indigenous groups have had data collected about them for centuries which has largely been used to harm them.
But COVID-19 has prompted a few jurisdictions to do that work. Manitoba collects the data, thanks to an Indigenous-led effort. Toronto got on board in late April. And both the federal and Ontario governments said they’re looking into it last week.
Back in Halifax, Iduye says she’s glad to see momentum but wishes it hadn’t taken so long.
“It took this pandemic to really see that the system is not working,” she said.
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