COVID-19 living in poverty

In Toronto, COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting those who are living in poverty

This outbreak is showing the cracks in our systems

David SuzukiDavid Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things and author of more than 30 books on ecology (with files from Sherry Yano).

World leaders have declared we’re all in the same COVID-19 boat. In response, writer Damian Barr tweeted, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.”

Data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show nearly one-third of COVID-19 patients are Black, even though they’re only 13 per cent of the U.S. population. Numbers are similar for COVID-19 death rates.

We often assume this type of inequality doesn’t exist in Canada. In Metro Montreal, COVID-19 cases are significantly higher per capita in Montreal North, an area with the lowest average after-tax income. Stats from Toronto Public Health indicate higher infection rates in areas with greater proportions of low-income people or newcomers.

“Many have said that COVID-19 is the great equalizer, in that it doesn’t discriminate,” said Toronto health board chair Coun. Joe Cressy. “But that’s sadly not the truth. What we’re seeing is that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting those who are living in poverty.”

The outbreak is showing us the cracks in our systems. If we address them, we’ll be in a better place to respond to longer-term climate and biodiversity crises.

The Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners have launched an “energy poverty and equity explorer tool” to explore energy poverty in Canada —defined as households that spend more than six per cent of their income on energy, more than double the national average. In Vancouver, visible minority households are twice as likely to experience energy poverty.

If cities start using this tool, maybe they’ll make different decisions. For example, if the focus is solely on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, policy-makers might opt to provide incentives for single-family home retrofits, but this will primarily benefit affluent homeowners who are planning to renovate. With equity in mind, they could instead opt to invest in or provide zero-interest financing to retrofit social housing or multi- family, low-income housing. That would reduce greenhouse gases and energy poverty while improving equity, job creation and human health.

Recently a colleague asked, “How do we want to use our privilege to show up in this moment? Who do we show up for? And how?”

We must act now to ensure fewer people will be left behind to shoulder an unfair share of the impacts.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO