In the spring of 2020, there was a COVID outbreak at a homeless shelter in Ottawa. The outbreak was traced back to two immigrant women who were both working at multiple long-term care homes in the city, and who lived at the homeless shelter. As new Canadians with few job prospects, personal support worker positions were some of the only jobs the two women could get. Those jobs paid so little that they were forced to work in more than one location in order to make enough money to live. Even then, they did not make enough to afford rent and so they had to live at the homeless shelter. It was a perfect storm of transmission as vulnerable people in one population brought the virus to vulnerable people in another. As many pointed out at the time, this was eminently predictable.
COVID-19 has had a disproportionately devastating effect on Black people, Indigenous people, immigrants and refugees. Pretty much anyone that has been disadvantaged by institutions and societies over generations are now even more vulnerable because of health inequities. Dr. Maya Yampolsky is an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Université Laval. She specializes in social and cultural psychology, with a particular focus in her research on the experience of managing multicultural and intersectional identities, and how those identities are related to our broader social relationships and broader social issues – especially systemic racism and how racism enters into our personal lives.
We’re speaking on Zoom, Dr. Yampolsky in her apartment in Quebec City, in front of a blank wall that I notice looks a lot like the hallway outside my high school gym. It turns out this is by design – an avid yoga practitioner, Dr. Yampolsky has been with a group call the Art of Living Foundation for about 20 years. They are an organization that promotes individual and community development through yoga and yogic philosophy. When teaching a course, Dr. Yampolsky prefers a neutral, blank background. That said, I get the sense that a yoga class with Maya would be an awful lot of fun. She is exuberant, cheerful, friendly and animated in a way that comes through even a Zoom screen. Even when the subjects we’re discussing are rather sombre and depressing compared to yoga. Subjects like COVID, and racism.
“A lot of research showed that Black Canadians of Caribbean origin or African origin, populations that are descendants of enslaved peoples from previous centuries, these groups have continuously been targeted. As a result there’s stress, and there’s illness that builds up in the body. So a lot more of these members of our population have chronic illness, which makes them more vulnerable to COVID, and to having a more intense experience with it. This means they have worse cases and a higher mortality.”
Around the world, Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Southeast Asian people have felt the greatest impact from the pandemic. This is in part because of the stress that comes along with the continuous targeting Dr. Yampolsky speaks about, but also because those groups are the most likely to be essential workers. Frontline healthcare employees, people who work in long-term care facilities, areas that are more susceptible to exposure. Worse health outcomes, increased exposure, and more long-term neglect of marginalized communities have combined to create a storm during the pandemic.
“This isn’t overt racism, like hatred. But it is something that manifests from the existence of structural racism that creates inequalities that then come to the surface when a pandemic hits.”
Dr. Yampolsky, along with her colleagues Andrew Ryder, John Berry, and Saba Safdar, created the fact sheet ‘Why Does Culture Matter to COVID-19’ for the CPA. That fact sheet inspired a review article she is currently working on with Rebecca Bayeh (1st author) and Andrew Ryder (last and corresponding author). Every time culture and COVID is discussed, it takes Dr. Yampolsky and her colleagues in new directions. Racism is a big part of that. With the pandemic, one thing leapt out very early.
“The World Health Organization has said that we don’t name diseases after places. And yet, people kept insisting on calling this the China Virus or worse. From there we saw a lot of hate speech emerging, and there’s been a lot of hate crime. Here in cities like Toronto and Montreal, there were a lot of defacements of businesses and sacred spaces like Buddhist temples. Asian-Canadians and Asian people abroad, in the global diaspora, and people who looked phenotypically Asian (like Northeastern states in India) were being targeted as the source of the virus and being associated with disease.”
This is sadly not a new thing. We’ve seen this before many times, with virtually every epidemic and pandemic in human history (the 1918 influenza pandemic is still called the ‘Spanish flu’ today, even though the first reports of the outbreak were in Kansas, and no evidence suggests that Spain was particularly hard-hit or that outbreaks occurred there earlier than anywhere else).
Dr. Yampolsky explains that part of the reason for this is that the human brain has shortcuts wired into it to be able to avoid danger – we see disease and immediately try to determine the source of the danger, leading us to associate a virus with a whole group. But of course, it’s more complicated than just this. It wasn’t as though everything was great, and then suddenly the pandemic created more racism – there had been a steady rise in overt racism and hate groups leading up to the onset of COVID-19, a trend that was merely accelerated by the pandemic.
Racism has always existed, and it is always there among the public – the rise has been in overt, or as Dr. Yampolsky put it, “audacious” racism. Hate groups and far-right terror groups in North America and Europe have been more bold in sharing their vitriol publicly. Even some political actions have acted to exacerbate racial tensions. Dr. Yampolsky points to Bill-21 in Quebec, the law that bans people working in public services from wearing ‘religious symbols’ of any kind.
“Anything that essentially targets a minority group will also condone hate toward that group. By its very nature, it singles them out for discrimination. And we were seeing a lot of that already.”
Discrimination against virtually all minority groups has been amped up as a result of COVID-19, in large part because that discrimination was on the rise already. The advent of the pandemic became an excuse to further scapegoat those marginalized groups among those who were already trafficking in hate. These populations already tended to be more vulnerable than others because a history of systemic racism has set them up that way.
In the middle of this perfect storm, Dr. Yampolsky sees a silver lining, maybe a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Hopefully the fact that COVID happened, and then this latest big anti-racism movement – as far as I can tell, the biggest since the civil rights movement – in a way COVID facilitated drawing our attention to what was an existing situation. We weren’t going out, we weren’t being distracted, and so our attention was drawn towards anti-racism. This, positively, has yielded a lot more awareness about racism, and institutional valuing and awareness about racism as well. So that also gives me hope – in the sense that COVID showed us that we’re all connected, it also drew our attention to these things that needed repair, and needed work. I hope that it does end up building more responsible, more healthy, and happier connections with one another.”
There’s still a huge amount of work to do building those connections. To avoid another scenario like the one that happened in Ottawa in the spring, immigrants and refugees require greater supports. Personal support workers, and others we consider essential, require higher salaries. We also need to build ethical and cooperative interactions with Black and Indigenous peoples. There must be equitable and affordable housing for all. And the structural systems that create these conditions must be dismantled.
Dr. Maya Yampolsky is one of the people that will move us closer, as a society, to creating those connections. After an hour with her on Zoom, it’s almost impossible not to be inspired to get out there and start working on dismantling racist structures and historic disenfranchisement. And also, maybe even to sign up for her yoga class.