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A Parallel Pandemic: COVID-19 and a Discriminatory Global Health System

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the inequalities that exist in our health-care system, here in Canada and abroad.  In light of the current Black Lives Matter movement occurring around the world, the message being sent by the people is clear. There exists deep-rooted systemic racism in our world propagated through our institutions. Our existing global health system in particular, is unequal, demonstrating the vast disparities in health outcomes between populations of people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health inequities are systematic differences in health outcomes due to the unequal distribution of health resources between different population groups arising from social conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.

In Brazil, health inequities are seen through the death rates caused by COVID-19. This virus, originally brought into the country by the Brazilian elite vacationing in Europe, is now plaguing the poorest suburbs such as São João de Meriti, where 63% of the population identifies as black or mixed race. Individuals living in these communities are more likely to die if infected by COVID-19 due to higher levels of pre-existing conditions and limited access to health care.

Even in Peru, Indigenous groups are growing in fear of the pandemic. With clinics being hours away, it is often difficult for Indigenous groups to seek treatment when needed. Having this knowledge, a chief in the Ashaninka community even requested for a clinic to be built and for a doctor to visit weekly. Although this request was made 15 years ago, it has not yet been fulfilled. Furthermore, in the midst of this pandemic, no doctors have made contact with these communities to provide education on COVID-19 and its transmission, leaving them blinded and uneducated to the effects of the disease.

Even in rural regions of Africa, where some of the poorest communities are located, there is limited access to health-care services. With lock-down measures in place for the past couple of months, poorer communities have not been able to benefit from this protection due to the need to provide for their family. These communities, similar to those in Brazil and Peru, are very tightly packed making the probability for transmission of COVID-19 that much higher. This factor combined with limited access to healthcare, puts poorer communities at significantly higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.

In North America, specifically the United States, Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at three times the rate of White Americas due to job insecurity, poverty and location in poor inner-cities. Canada is no different. Black neighbourhoods in Toronto are the hardest hit from COVID-19. In a study conducted by Global News, a strong association was found between high COVID-19 rates and low income, work conditions, visible minority status and low levels of education. These findings also mirror similar results in Montreal showing that immigrants, refugees and lower-income people live in the hardest-hit regions of COVID-19.

These health inequities exist due to racism in our societies. Why is it that in the 21st century, policy has not been put in place by the appropriate governments to minimize these health inequities? Why is it that poorer communities are not a priority in receiving medical assistance? Why is it that skin colour and economic status has made healthcare a tiered, hierarchical system? More importantly, why haven’t international organizations responsible for the health and well-being of all people not intervened to take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of these impoverished communities. In 2020, COVID-19 has exposed our shameful, discriminatory and racist global health system. Our lack of action as an international community to work towards a policy that ensures equal access to health systems in all regions is one of our biggest downfalls.

COVID-19 has a clear message in this day and age: simple access to health services should not be a privilege, it should be a basic human right.

Nailah completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph in Microbiology and French, where she also published her undergraduate thesis analyzing the impacts of probotic technologies in Sub-Saharan Africa. After completing her Masters in French literature, focusing on the impacts of colonization on women in Algeria, she took on a sessional lecturer position at the University of Waterloo; there, along with teaching, she conducted research on Aboriginal literature in Canada. Her passion for science and international development led her to pursue a degree in Law.