During times of crisis, Canada’s political and economic elite habitually reach for a well-worn phrase: “we’re all in this together.” As the pandemic began heating up, figures like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and Loblaw CEO Galen Weston were all found parroting this tired platitude. But as class and racial disparities in COVID-19’s impact on Torontonians illustrate, “we” are not in this together at all. Efforts to convince people otherwise are wearing increasingly thin.
On June 30 Toronto Public Health presented case data which starkly demonstrates the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on the poor, working class, and racialized within the city. As Dr. Kwame McKenzie aptly reflected while presenting the data, this makes clear “that COVID is not a great equalizer” but rather “exacerbates existing social and economic differences”.
The data provides additional fuel for recent calls to address systemic racism in Toronto and the rest of Canada. While only 52 percent of the city’s population belongs to a racialized group, 83 percent of COVID cases came from residents of colour. Impact was also skewed by income, with lower income groups suffering higher rates of infection. The highest percentage of cases were found among those whose annual household income is below $29,999, who contributed 27 percent of cases despite representing just 14 percent of the city’s population. Compare that to those who make $150,000 or more per year, who suffered just six percent of the cases while representing 21 percent of the population.
It’s no mystery why this is the case. As the Toronto Star reported, state policies aimed at stemming the spread of the virus “protected Toronto’s richest, whitest neighbourhoods, but not the poorest and most racialized ones.” While the lock down immediately flattened the curve in the former set of neighbourhoods, it made little to no difference in the latter. While richer residents were more likely to have a job that could be done at home, the poor and racialized tended to either lose their jobs or be forced to continue working at “essential businesses” throughout the shutdown, resulting in an increased risk of exposure. It is no coincidence that the Mount Olive neighbourhood has had both the highest rate of infection and the city’s highest proportion of people working as cashiers, truck drivers, and labourers in plastics manufacturing. It’s clear that workers employed in such essential jobs face the greatest risks.
The poor and racialized are also more likely to depend on public transportation for commuting to and from their jobs, and otherwise getting around the city, creating another vector of infection. A final factor is the increased likelihood of those from these demographics living in cramped, substandard housing. The effect of low-quality housing in spreading COVID-19 is illustrated by the fact that poor neighbourhoods tended to have higher rates of infection linked to “close contact”—which often indicates that those diagnosed were infected by a household member.
The decisions of Canadian capitalists and politicians, along with the social system they uphold, are leading to massive numbers of unnecessary infections and deaths among people of colour, workers, and the poor. This is not an oversight on their part, but the logical outcome of a system that exists to benefit the few at the top, while off-loading the costs of that system onto the backs of the exploited and oppressed. Capitalism’s poisonous dynamics always comes into sharper relief in a crisis, prompting the ruling class to profess, “We’re all in this together,” in an attempt to obscure the sickening reality from the public.
This seemingly harmless phrase in fact represents a denial of the racial and class disparities built into the DNA of capitalism. But honeyed words cannot prevent Canadian workers from recognizing the injustice before their eyes, or from understanding its roots in a capitalist system which needs to be tossed overboard. Only then can we create a better world, one in which “we’re all in this together” is a social reality, not a platitude.