When COVID-19 hit in its first wave, the messaging was, “We’re all in this together.”
But as the pandemic moved into its second wave, some say it has amplified disparities between people and communities.
“It’s interesting to see kind of how COVID-19 has evolved that when it first began it was seen as the great equalizer,” said Andy Yan. “Like how supposedly this is the great equalizer and how ‘we’re all in it together,’ but then as, I think things progressed, we’ve actually seen COVID-19 as the great amplifier.”
Yan is part of SFU’s city program, with a focus on urban planning and COVID-19’s impact on cities. He said the pandemic has “amplified the pre-existing social and economic fault lines” that are present in our communities.
“It’s how those fault lines have kind of played out in terms of how COVID unevenly affected various communities and various occupations that I think is going to tell us a lot about the future.”
On Dec. 4, the BC Centre for Disease Control released results and disaggregated data of the BC COVID-19 Survey on Population, Experience, Action and Knowledge (SPEAK). The BCCDC said that one-in-10 adults in the province completed the survey. It had a sample size of 395,000 people, making it “the largest-ever population health survey in Canada.”
The survey, which was released in May, asked British Columbians about the impact that COVID-19 “and the related public health measures were having on their lives.”
However, since the survey, B.C. has moved into the second wave of the pandemic and public health orders have changed drastically over the past few months.
Paul Hillsdon, a Surrey resident and urban planner and geographer, said when he got the email earlier this month that the results were out, he analyzed them out of curiosity.
“I opened it up, and to my surprise, there was actually a finer-grained level of detail with data at closer to a neighbourhood level than we’ve seen before,” Hillsdon said. “To me, that was this opportunity where I started looking through it and I saw this very clear discrepancy around COVID, around the health impacts, around the social and economic impacts and those disparities were just very obvious in Newton, as compared to other parts of the city.”
So why did COVID spike in #SurreyBC over the past few weeks? Data from the @CDCofBC COVID Survey gives us some clues. Spoiler alert: it is a complex picture of social, economic, and health disparities in Newton. /thread
— Paul Hillsdon ミキタカシ (@paulhillsdon) December 8, 2020
Between Jan. 1 and July 31, there were 521 COVID-19 cases recorded in Surrey (3,641 in all of B.C.).
Cases in Surrey nearly doubled between the end of July and the end of August, with 1,005 cases total (5,790 in B.C.).
By the end of September, there were 1,814 cases recorded in Surrey (9,138 in B.C.).
That doubled by the end of October, with 3,993 cases (14,381 in B.C.).
And now, by the end of November, Surrey hit 10,479 cases (33,238 in B.C.).
That’s about 32 per cent of all cases in B.C., despite Surrey having about 11 per cent of B.C.’s total population.
Those cases, however, aren’t broken down by communities in Surrey.
But if you look at COVID-19 exposure notices from the Surrey school district, the schools with the most COVID-19 exposure notices – Panorama Ridge Secondary (20), Sullivan Heights Secondary (20), Frank Hurt Secondary (19) and Tamanawis Secondary (18) – are all in Newton. That’s 7 notices between the four high schools by Dec. 18.
The two school closures, Cambridge and Newton elementaries, are both in Newton.
In a thread of tweets, Hillsdon noted the survey results give “some clues” as to the spike in cases in Surrey over the past few weeks, adding it’s a “complex picture of social economic and health disparities in Newton.”
In the survey, Surrey is broken down into eight neighbourhoods: Cloverdale, East Newton, West Newton, Fleetwood, Guildford, North Surrey, Panorama and Whalley.
When it came to being able to work remotely, 43.7 per cent of West Newton residents and 49.3 per cent of East Newton residents said they were able to. That’s compared to 51.5 per cent for all of Surrey and 54.7 per cent for Fraser Health.
The survey also asked about current and future financial stress.
In Newton, 44.8 per cent (west) and 38.6 per cent (east) said it has been “more difficult to meet their financial needs” during the pandemic. That’s compared to 36.4 in all of Surrey and 32.7 in Fraser Health.
As for future financial stress, 64.5 per cent in West Newton and 47.7 per cent in East Newton said their “financial stress will be worse if the public health response to the pandemic does not change for the next few months.” That’s compared to 48.4 per cent in all of Surrey and 43.5 per cent in Fraser Health.
When it came to difficulty accessing a family doctor, 71.5 per cent in West Newton and 72.2 per cent in East Newton said they had “difficulty accessing health care since the coronavirus pandemic.” That’s compared to 61.6 per cent in all of Surrey and 55.1 per cent in Fraser Health.
In summary, Newton residents felt greater financial stress, worked more essential jobs, were more concerned for their health, had less access to a doctor, and had a lower sense of community belonging. These are all factors that could contribute to a greater spread of COVID,” Hillsdon said on Twitter.
“Similar COVID spikes have occurred in other South Asian communities, including in England, Ontario, and Alberta. Clearly our health-care systems, and broader social and community institutions, have neglected the unique needs and realities of this diaspora.”
Referring to Hillsdon’s Twitter thread, Yan said the data showed the “role of frontline workers and where they live in the City of Surrey” and “understanding how that factors into the risk that they face in terms of catching COVID.”
“It’s about informing the population, but then it’s also about empowering communities,” said Yan. “It’s about knowing that this tells you really who’s being affected. It’s telling you what kinds of strategies in recovery and prevention that need to be developed moving forward.”
Hillsdon said there are factors beyond a person’s own general responsibility to follow the rules that could be leading to the rapid transmission of COVID-19.
“If people don’t feel comfortable seeing a doctor, that impacts their health. If people feel like they have financial concerns, so they’re more likely to continue to be working if they’re sick. That’s a factor that contributes to COVID,” he explained.
“If they’re essential workers or frontline workers and they can’t work from home, well obviously, that’s going to impact the likelihood of catching COVID and potentially spreading it to others.”
Going through the data, Hillsdon said, it “really shows that there’s much more going on that we have to unpack as a community.”
“Clearly, there’s these broader disparities that are happening in Newton that are not happening in other parts of Surrey, and we need to come together to really understand that, analyze that and start doing a better job of meeting the community where they’re at and developing interventions and support systems to resolve some of those disparities that are potentially contributing to a wider spread.”
In October, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said “there’s a number of different reasons ” why cases in Fraser Health, specifically south of the Fraser, are so high.
“Some of it is spread within large family groups, inadvertently, but there’s also a large number of essential workers,” explained Henry, “so many of our poultry producing plants, the fruit-producing plants, the large congregate living settings for farm workers, many health-care workers and others, truckers and other essential services are people who live or work in those areas.”
Kulpreet Singh, the founder of South Asian Mental Health Alliance, agreed that it’s not just about gatherings.
“It’s also with regards to how much density people live in by choice, or without choice. What kind of precarious possible financial or living situations they have, and also, how connected or disconnected they feel to public health supports,” he said.
Singh pointed to students, and international students in particular, and those working in labour jobs, such as warehouses or factories or farms.
“They are exposed more readily to each other and to other people and they don’t have as many barriers to transmission,” he said. “Then they have to, also at the same time, use public transit and they might be living in a living situation where they have multiple people living in a shared accommodation, in order to save on rent.
“You could kind of quickly and clearly see within the data that there are a lot of — not only South Asian — but immigrant populations, who don’t feel a sense of community all the time and they may not have readily available access to public health information.”
NEXT WEEK: We look at the challenges of educating minority communities about the pandemic and why some are calling for more diverse messaging.