Hate Over Health forum casts light on the "double pandemic" faced by Black Canadians

February 18, 2021 | Campus Life, Society, Health

On February 9, MacEwan University held the first forum of its 2021 Interdisciplinary Dialogue: COVID-19's Calls to Reimagine Relations. Facilitated by Dr. Valerie Ouedraogo, assistant professor of social work, Hate Over Health – Understanding Racial Discrimination in the Age of COVID-19 explored how COVID-19 has further amplified racial inequalities.

Guest speaker Cheryl Prescod, executive director of Black Creek Community Centre in Toronto, shared the challenges faced by the centre that serves a large population of Black residents, many of whom, she said, "struggle to stay healthy as they navigate systems that they feel are not built for them."

On top of that, Prescod added, the response by the health system has been slow in addressing challenges: with community testing, services for vulnerable populations, risks to essential workers and job protections, to name a few — so much so that the Black Creek Community Centre staff took it upon themselves to implement community-based testing. Staff looked like community members, testing sites were brought close to where people lived, and community ambassadors in the neighbourhood were hired to help with outreach and combat the stigma of testing.

"Today we continue to provide opportunities for training these community ambassadors, and we'll continue our testing as well as help with the vaccine rollout," said Prescod.

While the Black Creek Community Centre's story is good news, health equity expert Dr. Notisha Massaquoi said Black communities continue to endure the relentlessness of a double pandemic (COVID-19 and racism).

"At the height of COVID, the world watched the murder of George Floyd, but Black people experienced it," said Dr. Massaquoi. "Black people are the only race of people that actually can watch a murder of one of our own community members from beginning to end — beginning to last breath — and are expected to get up the next day and continue on with life as if things are normal — and also navigate the COVID pandemic."

This is nothing new, she added. But COVID-19 has put a focus on the fissures in society. Dr. Massaquoi, who lives in Toronto, shared some of the city's statistics, including that while nine per cent of the population is Black, Black people make up 22 to 27 per cent of COVID cases.

"Pandemics get inside those fissures and expose them, blow them up and expand them," she continued. "Once a fissure is expanded, you can't close it." The work that must come next, she said, is to think about what's going to happen post-COVID.

Looking at health care from a technological angle, Katrina Ingram's presentation focused on ethically-aligned artificial intelligence (AI) and how it's applied in health care. Ingram, a researcher, educator and the CEO of Ethically Aligned AI, noted that while there have been many upsides in applying AI to health-care systems (convenience and accessibility, for example), the downsides are cause for concern: Data riddled with historical bias, proxy data used in place of unavailable data, and human decision-making encoding bias into an AI model, to name just a few.

And then, she said, there are people. "The people who make and shape the AI technology in a certain direction are not a diverse group — they are typically white males that share similar socioeconomic backgrounds." Any biases that particular group holds may present itself (whether intentionally or unintentionally) in the technology or in the way the technology works, said Ingram.

How health-based data (and health-based data associated with race) is collected is also a sensitive topic, and requires deeper discussions into what is being collected and why.

"We have difficulties in Canada having conversations about race," said Dr. Massaquoi. "You can't collect race-based data if you can't have a conversation about race."

Though the double pandemic continues, forums like this one (which invite students, staff, faculty and the public to take part and explore social justice issues) are part of igniting that conversation, and in Dr. Ouedraogo's closing words, "We hope that one day we will not have to have these conversations."



Interdisciplinary Dialogue Project asks us to explore COVID-19's calls to reimagine relations

Over the Winter term, students, staff and faculty will consider relationality through the lens of history, misinformation, racism, decolonization, arts creation and more. 

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