January 19th, 2021

COVID-19 affecting marginalized populations, SACPA told

By Jensen, Randy on May 8, 2020.

Valerie Stam and Patricia Harewood, of the City for All-Women Initiative, were part of Thursday’s livestream session of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs. Sacpa/YouTube

Tim Kalinowski

Lethbridge Herald


Women, racialized peoples and other marginalized populations are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 over other members of society, and this is due, at least in part, to municipal and provincial policies which uphold systems of systemic racism and sexism.

This is what Ottawa-based human rights advocate and labour lawyer Patricia Harewood and Valerie Stam, executive director of the City for All-Women Initiative (CAWI), told members of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs during the organization’s weekly livestream speaker series on Thursday.

Based on an online survey CAWI conducted there are four key areas of concern, says Harewood, who also sits as a board member of the organization, which they have recently included in a letter to Ottawa city council, and which they feel likely applies in other municipalities as well.

The first area of concern is around gender-based violence.

“When people are in a situation where they are forced to stay home, and are being advised by public health authorities to stay at home in a situation where we have states of emergency that were called, we noticed in Ottawa specifically, and we were hearing from women’s organizations, there were women and children who were facing violence that were even more under the radar now,” says Harewood. “That was one of the areas where we felt there needed to be action on the part of the City to work with women’s shelters and organizations working on gender-based violence to ensure these women, these families, were not left behind in situations of violence.”

The second area of concern was around housing and homelessness, explains Harewood.

“With the COVID-19 shutdown this has disproportionately impacted certain communities, and the at-risk of homelessness community,” she says. “These are people who are couch-surfing, refugees, newcomers to the country and city – obviously these people would be disproportionately impacted.”

The third key area of concern would be around gender-based division of labour, says Harewood, with women, disproportionately, in the highest risk jobs deemed “essential” during the current COVID-19 crisis.

“The fact that in this pandemic, as we know,” she says, “the majority of people who are doing care work and essential service work, the people on the front lines, whether we are talking about grocery workers, personal support workers or people who are working as nurses in the health-care system – this work is done by women and the majority of work that involves keeping or cleaning public spaces clean is largely due to the gender division of labour, the patriarchal division of labour, this falls on the hands of women. We wanted this to be addressed in the city’s pandemic planning.”

The final major area of concern pointed out by Harewood is around equitable access to information and services.

“The fact that we live in a community in Ottawa where we have a high percentage of people who speak languages other than English or French, for example Arabic or Somali,” she says, “people who identify as women in these communities were not getting information about social distancing measures, and about what that means in terms of what they can do and how this might change their life and movement through this city.”

Lack of information in multiple languages and media formats has enhanced the fear factor around COVID-19 for many women and racialized communities, confirms Harewood. She also says communities who were already experiencing disproportionate attention from police due to racial profiling feel even more targeted in terms of public health order enforcement now.

“We have seen in our parks, on our streets, that people have been complaining they have been targeted by law enforcement disproportionately to enforce physical distancing,” she says. “The focus should be on education, not on enforcement.”

The key item of information which should come out of these concerns for municipalities like Lethbridge is they must acknowledge these problems exist, and make adjustments in their emergency response planning, policies and practices to counteract them.

“There still is a lot of fear, especially when it is tied to a lack of information,” summarizes Stam. “I think a government’s policies can exacerbate fears, particularly when there is not a lot of information circulated about the rationale for them. We saw that, and continue to see that.”

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