By Silke Reichrath
As noted by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in its October 2020 report “From risk to resilience: An equity approach to COVID-19,” the determinants of COVID-19 susceptibility – and of health in general – are racialized. They include material circumstances (income, housing, employment), psychosocial factors (social connections), biological factors (genetics), behavioural factors (nutrition, physical activity, substance use) and access to healthcare. The PHAC analysis highlights the over-representation of newcomers (especially newcomer women) among high exposure workers including meat processing workers, personal care staff in residential care facilities and home care, and employees in service jobs, transport and retail. Low-income workers and members of larger households are also over-represented, two population segments that tend to overlap with newcomer status. According to the report, differential exposure among newcomers is connected to the inability to maintain physical distancing due to the inability to work from home, the lack of paid sick leave and job security, reliance on childcare outside the home, crowded living conditions and possibly the use of public transportation.
Representation in the mainstream media
Several reports published in the Canadian mainstream media in November 2020 have been giving voice to a fiery debate about the role of culture vs. economics among the causes of the high rates of COVID-19 transmission among visible minorities in communities with high proportions of newcomers.
OMNI TV Digital Content Producer Eden Debebe published an article on the website of Vancouver’s NEWS 1130 radio, referencing the high COVID-19 rates in the South Asian community and a statement by BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry that the increase of cases in the South Asian community is mainly due to weddings and celebration-of-life events. Henry acknowledged that front-line work also plays a role and that the increase in cases started with Thanksgiving. Debebe admonished community members to celebrate Diwali at home.
Global News broadcast a report by Mike Drolet on the overlap between COVID-19 hotspots in Brampton and Surrey with the locations of the liveliest Diwali celebrations in normal years. Drolet noted that local public health authorities pleaded for restraint and mostly got it, with only one parking lot line-up in Brampton needing to be disbursed by police. Two South Asian public health experts were quoted, who linked the high COVID-19 rates to multi-generational households, a tradition of large gatherings at home, front-line work and the inability to self-isolate in crowded housing.
Debate on the role of culture in COVID-19 transmission
South Asian Physicians Zain Chagla, Sumon Chakrabarti and Tajinder Kaura pointed to the role of culture in COVID-19 transmission in a Toronto Star article. They noted the role of hospitality, where a “guest leaving your house on an empty stomach is considered a travesty,” and the tradition of living in large multi-generational families. They also mentioned that “many well publicized COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada have been associated with South Asian events, such as weddings.” They warned of the impending Diwali celebrations. Together with the prevalence of “public-facing professions” and financial instability among newcomers, the authors state these cultural factors have resulted in a greater spread of the virus. Compounded with the pre-existing “high rates of underlying diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and obesity within the South Asian population,” South Asians are also at greater risk of adverse outcomes like hospitalization and death. Notably the goal of the authors is to call for targeted interventions including culturally and linguistically appropriate communications materials and awareness-raising campaigns involving community leaders.
A response to the article was published the following day on First Policy Response, written by a fellow South Asian author, Seher Shafiq. She expressed shock at what she saw as “pathologizing an entire race by using culture and values as explanations for higher COVID rates, stigmatizing already marginalized communities” and a matter of “shaming and blaming.” Her explanation for the higher COVID-19 rates in racialized communities in general is their prevalence in precarious jobs in the service industry and gig economy where they have a lot of customer contact, cannot work from home, take transportation on crowded buses and go to work sick rather than lose a paycheque. She does concur with the impact of multi-generational, high-occupancy homes and gatherings during festivities like Diwali, but points out that Thanksgiving also led to a significant spike in cases.
Premier Kenney weighs in on Punjabi radio
On November 25, Premier Jason Kenney went on the air at the South Asian radio station Red FM in Calgary, linking the high rate of COVID-19 among the South Asian community in Calgary to the large multi-generational families and the tradition to have big family gatherings at home. The host of the program, Rishi Nagar, took his response to CBC News. He asked whether South Asian get infected more often because of their culture, or because they are front-line workers and cannot work from home. He also wondered why Kenney did not focus on anti-maskers, why there was no mandatory mask policy or effective contact tracing, and why no extra resources were dedicated to the most affected communities for PPE, top up wages or educational activities.
CTV News published a piece by Journalist Mark Villani objecting to Kenney’s comments, and the Edmonton Journal an opinion contributed by medical student Sharan Aulakh. Villani cited Dr. Mukarram Ali Zaidi, a spokesperson for the Canadian Muslim Research Think Tank, who demanded an apology from Kenney and said North-East Calgary’s immigrant community is mainly employed in jobs that don’t allow them to work from home, such as janitorial staff, taxi drivers or warehouse workers. Aulakh said Kenney missed the mark blaming South Asians, who are mostly essential frontline services, have limited access to compensated sick leave, and live in multigenerational housing due to financial constraints. Instead, she blamed Kenney’s inaction in the face of anti-mask protests, refusal to implement restrictions like mandatory masks, and failure to adopt the federal contact tracing app.
Overall, the mainstream media has generally taken the position of explaining high positivity rates in newcomer communities with systemic factors like the type of work people do, crowded housing and possibly the use of public transit. Public health and local government authorities are frequently cited as warning residents to celebrate festivities at home, whether it is Diwali, Thanksgiving or now Christmas. In addition, a lot of the debate in the mainstream media has been carried by authors from newcomer backgrounds or, at minimum, has cited experts from the affected communities. Red FM, a prominent ethnic radio station, has become featured in the Alberta mainstream due to comments made by the premier on the station and the response of the program host.
As part of the Bridging the Mainstream-Ethnic Digital Divide in Covid-19 Literacy project, we have analyzed coverage by ethnic media outlets in Canada over the month of November to see what the insider perspective is on this highly relevant question.
Representation in the ethnic media
The debate reflected in a similar, but more defensive, way in the ethnic media. Numerous admonitions from municipal and public health authorities to celebrate Diwali at home, along with threats of bylaw enforcement, were passed on in all the South Asian media in the run-up to Diwali and Bandi Chhor Diwas. Two large gatherings in parking lots in Mississauga and Brampton made the news with wide coverage in South Asian media, but the high level of compliance overall was also highlighted. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown’s speech in defence of Brampton’s essential workers was also widely picked up in the South Asian media. Warning of Diwali gatherings have now given way to warnings of Christmas gatherings.
Ethnic media bridging linguistic silos
In an interesting use of ethnic media to bridge silos between minority groups, Patrick Brown and Portuguese-Canadian Councillor Martin Medeiros were interviewed on the Portuguese TV station FPTV on 19 November to explain the high rates of COVID-19 transmission in Brampton and speak out against the racialized finger-pointing and stigma against the Indian community. They said Brampton’s essential workers bear the brunt of COVID-19 and they are the ‘unsung heroes’ keeping the food processing, transportation and medical system running. Brampton is at the forefront of Canada's supply chain and Brampton truckers keep travelling to the US, where COVID-19 is out of control. They also again pointed to Brampton’s disadvantage with respect to health care funding, the lack of hospital beds, and delays in getting an isolation centre.
Similarly, radio host Mark Strong at G 98.7 FM, a radio station with a primarily Black audience, picked up MPP Gurratan Singh’s reaction that Brampton essential workers shouldn’t be blamed for risking their lives in factories and trucks so that others can work from home. They also shouldn’t be blamed for having only one hospital due to health care under-funding. Mark Strong linked this defence of South Asians to the situation of Black people, who also suffer a lack of resources and live in crowded low-income housing, which also makes them less able to control and resist the pandemic.
A report by the Toronto non-profit ICES showing that most positive cases in the Greater Toronto Area were among racialized and immigrant populations received wide coverage. The Toronto Star article was picked up by PTC Punjabi TV and set off a flurry of pushback highlighting the role of Brampton essential workers working in factories, warehouses, food processing plants and trucking and keeping grocery stores stocked while other Canadians were working from home. OMNI Punjabi TV featured Jaskaran Sandhu of the World Sikh Organization of Canada commenting on the exposure essential workers have to live with and a tweet by Naheed Dosani, who said “continually blaming Brown people in Brampton for rising #COVID19 cases is unnerving & racist.”
Community initiatives to fill the communications gap
This OMNI report also started off a series of spotlights on constructive initiatives from within the South Asian community to counter the pandemic, featuring the Canadian Sikh COVID-19 Task Force. This task force, founded by Sikh physicians, was also highlighted by 5aabtv. The task force was formed in an effort to create greater awareness about virus and why it is hitting the community hard, and to share important messaging on what they can do to prevent transmission with South Asian communities in their language. The task force also addressed the taboo and stigma around getting tested for COVID-19 and telling anyone if a test is positive.
Another report on OMNI Punjabi presented the Canadian Muslim COVID-19 Task Force and Hindu COVID Task Force alongside the Sikh COVID Task Force. Spokespersons pointed out that not only South Asians, but all marginalized populations are highly afflicted by COVID-19. They try to translate the public health messaging and to develop and disseminate "culturally sensitive and culturally appropriate" information. The Hindu COVID-19 Task Force and the umbrella Canadian South Asian COVID-19 Task Force were also featured on the Tamil radio station CTBC, the Hindi Radio Shon – CINA and Punjabi WTOR Radio.
OMNI Punjabi also featured a public awareness campaign entitled "Humans in Brampton," which is trying to tell the stories of front-line workers on social media. Their message is that 'Brampton should be celebrated, not stigmatized.' Another spotlight on OMNI Punjabi reported on the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative, which distributed adapted cloth masks that can be worn with turbans and produced cardboard displays showing correct 2 m distancing equaling the length of an unrolled turban for use in gurdwaras.
Need for culturally appropriate local language information
Ethnic media also pointed out the fact that minority communities have special communications needs. A talk show on Radio Humsafar 1350 AM on 22 November conveyed a sense that mainstream media never talked about the healthcare needs of Bramptonians (more hospital beds and testing centres) and that the government did not support ethnic media in its role of conveying the government's policies and plans to their communities. OMNI Punjabi TV reported on the lack of government communications targeting minority communities. The three levels of government release new numbers and information every day, some of which are contradictory and confusing even to people who speak English as a first language. The Canadian government and United Way funded a COVID-19 helpline for South Asians in the GTA with capacity in several South Asian languages, and the Peel Region COVID-19 website can be translated into a range of languages, but this is not enough. The Tamil Canadian Centre for Civic Action called for local-language information not only about the public health guidelines but also about available supports. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, so the outreach to them should also be disproportionately resourced.
Very few sources included critical comments about COVID-19 transmission during Diwali fireworks, international students disregarding the guidelines, lenient mask use A talk show guest on a Punjabi CIAO AM 530 program argued fireworks should not have been sold for Diwali. Residents interviewed on the street by OMNI TV mentioned that newly arriving immigrants and students do not observe the quarantine properly and that people were still planning Diwali get-togethers. Community members speaking to the Punjabi Zee TV mentioned that a lot of people came to markets and religious sites without masks and that there were crowds at sweet shops before Diwali. An opinion piece by Surjit Singh Flora on Asia Metro argued that “our touchy-feely instincts are getting in the way” as residents of Brampton just fail to follow the guidelines.
The main difference observed in the ethnic media from the mainstream is the high number of reports that defend the community as being affected by COVID-19 mainly due to their position as essential front-line workers and their economic marginalization and the concerted effort to communicate public health guidelines and information as they relate to the local culture, in local languages and pertaining to local festivities and events. In addition, ethnic media highlight initiatives taken within the community to raise awareness and meet community information needs. In this way, ethnic media fulfill a very real need to translate government and expert messaging into culturally and linguistically relevant formats and in adding information from the grassroots.
What to Do?
As Editor-in-Chief at MIREMS, my daily job has been to review the coverage of COVID-19 in the ethnic media since January of this year, and we see the ethnic media are fighting a battle on three fronts: One against the virus, including the fight against disinformation and disconnect between government and the governed; the other against polarized accusations from the mainstream of culture being the driver of pandemic spread; and a third against relative neglect in the distribution of government resources to off-set pandemic revenue losses.
Instead of viewing diversity as a barrier to communication with these audiences, would it not be natural to think of the matter differently? The Brampton trucker, factory worker, grocery clerk and front-line caregiver new to the country and struggling in English are unlikely to follow the daily stream of press conferences on mainstream media. So why not reach out to them with pertinent, culturally adapted communications in their language through the media they are in tune with?
Viewed from a demographic perspective, we see ethnic media as a mature set of organizations with established audiences and a local advertising base. They are the successful outcome of the historical combination of population needs and government multicultural policies.
What is important is to recognize how influential this channel can be in the fight against social media disinformation. After thirty years of observation, even without the help of much in the way of available statistics, we think that they just might have the eyes and ears of their local audiences, as well as their mouths, above all on talk shows and in the streets.
A cultural – linguistic and demographic approach to COVID would also perhaps address the problem of generational understanding and conflict. It would make sense to educate the older generation who still read or listen to traditional media on the need to remain connected with the rest of the family over Zoom, not dinner. Getting the elders and guardians of culture on board could help catalyze a temporary shift in family traditions.
Our eye on the debate between ethnic media organizations and the government has always included lack of funding, but this has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Wage and rent subsidies do not reach most small outlets, and government advertising related to COVID-19 reached only a small proportion of outlets. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, so the outreach to them should also be disproportionately resourced.
The only thing the ethnic media needs is government recognition and support as a channel with equal rights to English and French media.
See also an article from New Canadian Media: "Unsung Heroes of Super Spreaders: Racial and Ethnic Minorities in COVID-19 Coverage".
This article is part of the Bridging the Mainstream-Ethnic Digital Divide in COVID-19 Literacy project. New Canadian Media has analyzed ethnic media coverage of COVID-19 between May 1 and November 30, using web, print and broadcast news summaries provided by MIREMS media monitoring.