Disparities During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need for an Intersectional Lens in Policy Analysis

Unpacking Equity is a collaboration between the Public Policy and Governance Review and the Equity, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (EDPP) at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. This series aims to explain equity-related policy issues and break down complicated topics involving equity, diversity and inclusion. Policy professionals can gain a better understanding of these complex issues in order to incorporate an equity lens into their practice. To learn more, please get in touch with the EDPP.

By: Evelyn Chong

In March of 2020, Madonna made headlines with her controversial reference to the COVID-19 virus as the great equalizer, affecting anyone regardless of wealth, fame, intelligence, and location. The notion that COVID-19 does not discriminate and that everyone is at equal risk of being infected has been widespread across media and public health messages. Many speak to sentiments of unity and equal status, claiming that “we’re all in this together.”  However, while it is true that nearly everyone has felt the effects of COVID-19, not all groups of people have been impacted in the same way.

In reality, the pandemic has disproportionately affected marginalized communities, including low-income communities, refugees and undocumented migrants, Indigenous peoples, racialized groups, the LGBTQ2+ community, people with disabilities, and women.  

A public health study found that the most materially deprived neighbourhoods in Ontario accounted for the largest proportion of confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and intensive care unit admissions after adjusting for age. Groups living below the poverty line have the highest rate of cases at 113 per 1000,000 people, with the highest income group at 70. Refugees and migrants, especially those who are undocumented, often cannot access adequate health programs or social protections, facing a greater risk of infection.

Furthermore, racialized groups have proven to be at greater risk for COVID-19 mortality. StatsCan has reported that neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of visible minorities have a mortality rate double that of neighbourhoods with the lowest proportion. Individuals with long-term conditions or disabilities report declines in physical and mental health, difficulty accessing services for their conditions, and challenges meeting grocery needs. Women have also been adversely impacted, with a high proportion of pandemic-related job-cuts falling on female-dominated industries such as tourism, retail, education, and food services. The frontline healthcare system is also dominated by women, resulting in women representing 81.0% of the 5,815 confirmed COVID-19 cases among health care workers in Ontario by June 2020.

In the 2020 Speech from the Throne, the Canadian government committed to ensuring a feminist, intersectional response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery period.

But what does an intersectional response actually look like?

Intersectionality is a term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw over 30 years ago. It is used as a lens to examine the ways that different forms of inequality, such as racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia, interact to exacerbate discrimination. It is essential to consider the relationship between different forms of inequality, as this interaction presents additional challenges that cannot be seen by looking at them as distinct categories. During a pandemic that has so drastically challenged and altered the lives of individuals, groups, and communities across the world, some more than others, the concept of intersectionality cannot be ignored.

When developing policy approaches to the COVID-19 crisis, the Canadian government should consider the concept of intersectionality. This will involve understanding that many individuals who face one form of inequality or another have experienced the effects of the pandemic to a greater degree than those who have not. Those who face multiple forms of inequality face even more drastic effects.

For example, as noted previously, women and racialized individuals have experienced disproportionate social, economic, and health-related consequences resulting from the pandemic. An intersectional lens can help explain that women of colour experience all of these consequences, in addition to entirely new challenges that come as a result of the combination of these inequalities. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, women of colour are experiencing unemployment levels at a rate that is higher (10.5%) than that of white women (6.2%) and men of colour (10.0%). Stay at home orders have also increased instances of gender-based violence, which have been compounded for trans women, women with disabilities, Indigenous women, racialized women, and LBGTQ+ community members.

Though complex and challenging, approaching policy decisions surrounding COVID-19 and the impending recovery period through an intersectional lens is fundamental to ensuring no one is left without assistance and support. This lens will allow the government to create targeted policies aimed at supporting the most vulnerable populations and minimizing the disparities they face.

While COVID-19 is an important and relevant example of the need for an intersectional lens in policy analysis, the benefits of such an approach extend beyond the pandemic. The insight that this lens gives into the complexities and needs of various groups of people has the potential to benefit and strengthen future government policies and address the needs of those who are most marginalized.

Evelyn Chong is a Master of Public Policy Candidate (2022) at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and an Equity Analyst for the Equity, Diversity, and Public Policy Initiative. She completed her B.A. at Dalhousie University with a Combined Honours in Gender & Women’s Studies and Sociology and specializes in policy work concerning gender and sexuality, race, mental health, and, more broadly, social issues. Evelyn has a particular interest in addressing policy issues using gender-based analysis and intersectional lenses.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s