May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, dedicated to celebrating the contributions of Canadians of Asian ancestry. But this year, it is an opportunity to understand some of the challenges faced by racialized people of Asian descent in the context of the global pandemic.
East Asians face a new wave of racist incidents
Racism in Canada has reared its ugly head once again with the COVID-19 pandemic—understood to have first emerged in China—serving as a catalyst.
Similar to what happened during the 2003 SARS outbreak, anti-Asian racism has been on the rise all across Canada since this current pandemic first emerged. Reports from people of Asian heritage living across the country have revealed various kinds of harassment as they go about their lives in their communities and workplaces — from experiencing racial tirades to physical assaults to front-line health care workers experiencing racism even as they try to save lives.
A poll in Canadas’ three largest cities found that 1 in 5 people felt unsafe sitting next to an Asian person on a bus. In Quebec, the rise of harassment incidents directed at people of Asian background has led the province’s Human Rights Commission to warn that “the pandemic must not be a justification for any form of discrimination.”
More recently, anti-Asian racism was shown by a federal Conservative leadership contender, MP Derek Sloan, who publicly questioned whether the country’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, who is of Asian descent, is “working for China” rather than Canada and calling for her dismissal to keep Canada “sovereign.” Although the Prime Minister was quick to condemn the remarks as racist, the Conservative Party leader, Andrew Scheer, and other contenders for the party’s leadership all refused to condemn them.
To address anti-Asian racism, the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice was forced to launch its Stop the Spread campaign to counter rampant misinformation found across the internet. A similar campaign has also been launched by the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations.
PSAC calls on the federal government to urgently increase support, including through new public funding, for initiatives aimed at combatting anti-Asian racism and to swiftly condemn incidents of anti-Asian racism.
South Asians at higher health and financial risk from COVID-19
South Asian people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 because they have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, which puts them at higher risk for health complications. Moreover, many Asians, including South Asians, live in multi-generational households, meaning elderly members are at higher risk of exposure to the virus.
Asian people, like other racialized people, also tend to be over-represented in precarious employment in the health, transport and service industries, which involve coming into close contact with the public during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, to date there has been no disaggregated race-based data (i.e., data with subcategories of race, such as South Asian) collected in Canada on those who test positive for COVID-19 or those who die from it, and health authorities have shown little interest in starting to collect and publish such information. In Ontario, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health dismissed calls to do so despite pressure from various public health associations. Yet, preliminary research from the United Kingdom reveals that South Asians—along with other minority groups—are dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate.
Thankfully, Toronto Public Health has initiated its own data collection during the pandemic, which will include race-based data. As stated by Toronto Board of Health chair Joe Cressy, “It’s absolutely essential, as it has always been, that we have comprehensive data to fully understand and in turn respond to COVID-19. In the absence of appropriate disaggregated race-based data, we cannot properly respond.”
Moreover, with jobs vanishing quickly, many South Asians are now facing economic crisis. For instance, an April 2020 national survey by the Association for Canadian Studies revealed that South Asians are among the mostly likely to be financially affected by the pandemic—experiencing income loss and difficulties with paying bills and making rent.
PSAC calls on all Canadian governments to urgently begin the collection of disaggregated race-based data to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on racialized communities and ensured adequate interventions are made available.
Speak up and support one another
PSAC reminds all members, including those of Asian descent, that they can count on their union to fully support them if they experience racism in their workplace. Moreover, PSAC encourages all members to be vigilant at work and speak out against racist views and actions.
The origin of Asian Heritage Month
Asian Heritage Month has been celebrated in many communities across Canada since the 1990s. In December 2001, Senator Vivienne Poy, an accomplished Canadian of Asian heritage, proposed a motion that was adopted by the Senate of Canada, designating May as Asian Heritage Month nationally. In May 2002, the Government of Canada signed an official declaration to designate May as Asian Heritage Month.