Alberta’s second wave of COVID-19 is in full swing, and the United Conservative Party (UCP) government is looking for someone to blame. In search of a target, Premier Jason Kenney aimed a “wake up call” at Calgary’s South Asian community in a recent radio interview.
Kenney singled out the community as a driver of COVID-19 spread based on their apparently unique tradition of having “big family gatherings at home”. He imagines this is why Calgary’s South Asian population is suffering disproportionately high numbers of COVID cases. However, contrary to what Kenney believes, one community of people is not responsible for the unmitigated spread of COVID-19. The main driver of COVD spread is unsafe workplaces, and the responsibility for this lies with the bosses and government inaction.
Family gatherings or workplace risk?
The party line of the UCP has been that social gatherings are the main driver of infections. During the interview, Kenney claimed that “40 per cent of the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta goes back to private social functions, gatherings, and homes.” But with Alberta’s contact tracing system having broken down, it is anyone’s guess where he is getting those numbers.
An emergency physician in Calgary explained the problems with Alberta’s contact tracing system cast doubt on the Kenney government’s claim that social gatherings are driving the spread of COVID. This is because the source of infection is unknown in approximately 85 per cent of cases where contact tracing has been done.
There is no evidence that people in the South Asian community are holding larger or more frequent gatherings than any other group. No evidence, at least, besides the racial bias of Alberta’s premier and his cronies.
At any rate, Kenney’s interviewer, Rishi Nagar, was quick to respond to the claim that social gatherings in the South Asian community are driving the spread of COVID:
But premier sir, the problem is… the people living in this area are the taxi drivers, they are the transit drivers, they are the truck drivers, they are working in the cleaning facilities in the airports and other janitorial services are being provided by these people. They can’t stay home.
Nagar hit the nail on the head. The South Asian community targeted by Kenney is largely based in Calgary’s northeast, which has a high concentration of working class people, especially essential workers. For most people, work is where they come into contact with nearly every person they will encounter in a day, therefore work is where they are most at risk of catching COVID-19. This is especially the case if they work in an unsafe workplace for negligent employers, as was the case with the outbreaks in meat packing plants in southern Alberta.
The South Asian community is no different. Many in the community are part of the front-line workforce faced with infection risk daily. While in the spring the Kenney government was quick to label these workers as “essential” and even called them “heroes,” their support stopped there. No one is keeping track of how many thousands of drivers, custodians, cashiers, and food service workers are becoming infected and negligent bosses are allowed to get away with not providing adequate PPE and with not enforcing public safety protocols.
However, race and ethnicity data collected in the United States shows a clear pattern of disproportionate infection and death for racial and ethnic minority groups. A recent modelling study also predicted “higher infection rates among disadvantaged racial and socioeconomic groups,” based only on the locations they would be in most often, including their workplaces.
A study conducted on the social determinants of COVID-19 spread in Ontario “found Ontario COVID-19 case rates correlated to visible minority status and recent immigration. But after adjusting for housing density and working conditions, those socioeconomic factors were found to be the drivers in the racial disparity in infections.”
One of the study’s authors, Stefan Baral, has explained that while the study was focused on Ontario, the situation would not be very different in Alberta. He believes that the high rate of infection in the South Asian community in northeast Calgary is due to the fact that the people living there are more likely to continue working in public spaces, which also means a reliance on public transit. “They’re still out there, delivering Amazon, delivering food… Their exposures haven’t really changed that much, in the context of a lockdown or not a lockdown, because they’re considered essential workers,”Baral wrote.
That’s not even accounting for other facts of life for low-wage workers. They have more pre-existing health conditions, and they have less access to quality healthcare and housing. “Then they live in really tight environments. We keep talking about social gatherings, but I think we need to go a little bit past that, because it implies people will stop going to social gatherings and that will fix the issue, but all of these data just keep reinforcing that these are people’s living and working conditions,” Baral added.
More populous households are not the root of the problem. This would be a non-issue if the UCP prioritized public health rather than corporate wealth. A lockdown on all non-essential businesses would have cut across spiking infection rates before they got out of hand. A properly conducted lockdown, with strictly enforced workplace safety measures and with full wages to the workers staying home, would have saved thousands from infection. But Kenney’s wealth-before-health approach is putting people who work precarious low-wage jobs at greater risk.
The housing density of the South Asian community does not make them the perpetrators of the virus. As Rishi Nagar said in the interview, these are the people who are more likely to become infected because they are more likely to work high-risk, high-contact jobs. If a line cook, a taxi or delivery driver, or a grocery store worker gets sick, and the illness spreads in their household, it is because the government failed to implement a proper pandemic response, not because they live with many people. The South Asian community is another community on the list of the victims of the UCP’s callous pursuit of profits over people.
The motivation and implications of Kenney’s comments are unmistakable. And they are nothing new. Kenney, ever the copy-cat admirer of Ontario premier Doug Ford, is using Ford’s old bag of tricks. Ford used the high rate of infection in a predominantly South Asian neighbourhood in Brampton, Ontario to accuse “a lot of cultures” of having “massive weddings” to which “[they bring] people from all over the world.”
Kenney is following the same script as Ford: divide, confuse, and pass the blame. He is scapegoating the South Asian community to distract from the blood on the UCP’s hands. He is trying to inflame racial tensions and prejudices, to direct people’s fear and anger about the pandemic against folks who are in the exact same boat. Kenney is trying to turn the situation on its head. He has grossly mismanaged the pandemic—and now the South Asian community is bearing the brunt.
Kenney is trying to use racist dog whistles to conjure up hostility between communities in Alberta. He singles out the South Asian community, and tries to turn all eyes on them as an outlet for people’s rising frustration, fear, and anger. But this is a smokescreen that the UCP has thrown down so they can try to scuttle out of the spotlight.
Kenney and the UCP government cannot be allowed to escape responsibility for their role in the disastrous response to the pandemic. The labour movement should keep the pressure where it belongs: firmly trained on Kenney and the UCP. The unions have the resources and every interest to stand against Kenney’s snake-tongued racist attacks, and to stand together with his targets. The capitalist governments and their billionaire bosses will always try to pit us against each other, but the working class has to stand united in the face of these attacks and organize a fight back against the bosses and the UCP government.
The sizable South Asian communities of Calgary and Edmonton do not deserve this abuse, and they refuse to be scapegoated. South Asian workers are contracting the virus at a higher rate because they are mostly essential workers in high-risk, front-line positions. An injury to one is an injury to all, and this has never been more obvious than with the tangible spread of COVID-19 from one to many. The bosses put their profits before human lives. It’s time to put human lives before the bosses’ profits. By taking control of our workplaces, we could decide which jobs are essential, which are not, and how to lockdown safely.