How COVID‑19 has magnified racism in Canada's health care system

- February 4, 2021

OmiSoore Dryden, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies and associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine.
OmiSoore Dryden, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies and associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine.

In June of last year, health officials in Ontario declared racism a public health emergency — a move many believe is a necessary step to help address the structural racism in Canada’s health care system that has been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of Dal’s commemoration of African Heritage Month, the Black Student Advising Center hosted a talk on the impact of racism on health, especially within the COVID-19 pandemic. OmiSoore Dryden, the speaker, discussed the systematic barriers within the health care system that result in anti-Black racism and answered questions from viewers.

The talk was moderated by PhD student Tiffany Gordon, who is researching the over-incarceration of Black individuals in Canada.

Dr. Dryden, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies and associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine, began her talk with a discussion of specific examples of racism in health care, many of which have recently made national headlines, including the case of Joyce Echaquan. Echaquan was an Indigenous woman who faced racist treatment from staff while she lay dying in a Quebec hospital.

“To be good health advocates, physicians need to have greater experience identifying how racism manifests in the day to day,” Dr. Dryden said.

Black lives imperiled

She continued with an overview of the history of medical forms of anti-black racism.

“If our experiences as Black and Indigenous people were taken seriously, or Black queer and trans communities were taken seriously, what would be revealed about what really happens in the health sector?” Dr. Dryden asked.

In many ways, the effects of medical racism have been amplified during the pandemic. Dr. Dryden argues that the idea that COVID ‘doesn’t discriminate’ perpetuates racist narratives about the actual outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black Canadians.

“Black lives are further imperiled in a time of COVID-19 when we’re subject to death both on the policing and public health fronts,” Dr. Dryden said.

Dr. Dryden’s talk was part of a variety of programming in place for African Herritage Month at Dal, which is centered this year around the theme of Black Health Matters.

During the event, Ronke Taiwo, the Black Student Advisor at both Dalhousie and the University of King’s College, also announced the winners of the Mrs. Nora Hickson Kelly Award. The award provides a $500 bursary to students of African descent.

The need for race-based data

Dr. Dryden says an important tool in understanding COVID’s impact on the African Nova Scotian community is collecting race-based health data.

Don’t Count Us Out, a health promotion initiative that Dr. Dryden is working on, seeks to understand how COVID-19 is impacting the African Nova Scotian community and to advance the collection of race-based health data in the province.

The presentation ended with another performance by Eriana Willis, as she sang “Rise Up” by Andra Day, ending the talk with a message of optimism in light of the important challenges facing the medical community regarding structural racism.


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