Inequality and COVID-19: The Adverse Effects of the Pandemic on Low-Income Communities

By: Alyssa Bishop

The coronavirus has been a force to reckon with since the pandemic came to a head in March 2020. The pandemic has tested the capacity of the healthcare, education, and economic systems and yet, despite all of the chaos, COVID-19 was originally praised as the ‘great equalizer’. It was said that the virus did not care about your gender, nationality, or financial status, and that it would come for us all. There are clearly discrepancies between how intense the symptoms of the virus would be for each person, largely dependent on age and pre-existing health conditions. Yet when it came strictly to who would contract the virus, it was believed that all humanity was equally at risk. But how much do we actually know about COVID-19’s impact on diverse communities? There is a significant correlation between neighbourhoods with low socioeconomic levels and high rates of COVID-19 that has not been adequately investigated, in order to develop a proper response. Census maps and rates of COVID-19 cases clearly illustrate how the virus disproportionately affects those in low income neighbourhoods.

As reported by the New York Times, “the pandemic is widening social and economic divisions that also make the virus deadlier.” As this is playing out across the United States and Europe, it is also  occurring blatantly in our own backyard. There is a clear link in Toronto between neighbourhoods with the lowest rates of household incomes and the highest rates of COVID-19.

As seen on the City of Toronto website, the four neighbourhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 all reported median total household incomes in the two lowest brackets ($22,208-$57,830 and $57,831-$79,892) according to the 2016 census. These include Glenfield-Jane Heights, West-Humber-Clairville, Downsview-Roding-CFB and York University Heights. Comparatively, the four neighbourhoods with the lowest rates of COVID-19 all reported median total household incomes in the top two brackets ($79,893-$115,456 and $115,457-$184,661) in the same census. Neighbourhoods such as Danforth, Yonge-Eglinton, The Beaches and Lawrence Park-North have reported the lowest number of cases in the city. This is not a coincidence.

The above illustrates that those in a lower socioeconomic stratum are more likely to catch the disease. This could be caused by a variety of factors. First, those who receive lower incomes, such as those in minimum wage service jobs, do not have the luxury of being able to take time off work. Even those who remain healthy are likely to suffer loss of income or access to health care, effects that hit these neighbourhoods drastically harder than those with lower numbers of cases. Loss of jobs have left many struggling to pay for necessities like housing, medication and food, while those who are still employed are juggling the reality of a lack of childcare. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, roughly 43% of parents living with children report that “they or a family member has lost a job or work due to the pandemic.” When that number is broken down even more, it includes 62% of Hispanic families, 50% of black families and 36.5% of white families. Just over half of low-income families reported job loss. Even though these figures are American, one can infer that a similar situation is developing in Canada. These numbers illustrate the stark difference in experience with the pandemic due to socioeconomic status.

Each low-income family is forced to accept a higher risk of exposure. Simultaneously, inequality itself is acting in a mutually reinforcing cycle, raising the toll of the virus as it, in turn, widens the socioeconomic divide. To once again draw on figures available for the US, 41.5% of those who are employed can work from home, while only about one-quarter of low-income parents can do so. In the face of drastic unemployment, many individuals in low-income neighbourhoods took jobs as frontline workers, the majority being in the service industry. These jobs come with a higher risk of contracting the virus strictly due to heightened exposure. Consequently, factors such as access to the internet and the ability to take time off work to see a doctor lead to a loss of accessible healthcare.

Society has known about two major risk factors that make the Coronavirus deadlier: old age and pre-existing health conditions. But now, research indicates a third: low socioeconomic status. This is something that cannot be ignored by governments and deserves recognition in terms of assistance in the present, but also for times to come. Outside of the context of COVID-19, low income rates are associated with higher rates of chronic health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease by about 10 percent. These conditions can make the coronavirus up to 10 times more deadly. Combined, these two statistics result in COVID-19 being significantly more  deadly for those in society’s lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods. These inequalities are most obviously felt by those of a lower socioeconomic status, but it also puts broader society at risk. Substantial and robust evidence confirms a direct connection between socioeconomic status and health status. This is a link that needs to be addressed in order to create substantial change. Health policy and social policy are not two isolated entities, and especially in this instance, cannot be treated as such. The link needs to not only be  deeply examined but also addressed with social and policy action.

Alyssa Bishop is currently in her first year of the Master of Public Policy program at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts with Joint Honours in Political Science and History from McGill University. Her policy interests include social and foreign policy. 

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