COVID-19 and the Black and African Diaspora

May 25, 2020

Image Courtesy of: www.blackillustrations.com/

[This post was originally published as part of McMaster University’s Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition (IGHC) Working Paper Series ‘Covid-19 Urgent Responses‘.]

The virus doesn’t discriminate. It’s the great equalizer. We’re all in this together. These are refrains that can be heard around the world as a chorus of government leaders, health practitioners, celebrities, and social media influencers construct a mainstream discourse around COVID-19. With every corner of the globe experiencing the health and economic effects of the virus, and affluent and powerful people like Tom Hanks and Boris Johnson among those unfortunate enough to contract it, there is certainly an unparalleled shared experience that will be a defining feature of this time in global history. This elusive and volatile virus has also served as a common enemy, inspiring incredible feats of solidarity and collaboration across national, cultural, class, disciplinary, and political boundaries. These are indeed important stories to tell.

However, the sociopolitical cleavages of our pre-COVID world are still quite visible through this veil of social change and good will. In fact, there is good reason to believe that these societal distinctions will become further entrenched and increasingly divisive in the time of extreme uncertainty, scarcity, and paranoia that we are currently in. Time, experience and research will tell how these dynamics will ultimately unfold. In the meantime, however, it is important that researchers keep an eye to the ground and begin to ask questions about how COVID-19 is being experienced by different communities – particularly racialized and marginalized groups. When we look closely at the Black and African diaspora in North America[1], we begin to see how the intersections of factors such as race, migration, economics, and structural environment are creating a unique set of challenges that these communities are both confronting and responding to.

Health Outcomes and Financial Strain

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, there were rumours spreading quickly through social media suggesting that Black people were biologically less susceptible or immune to the virus. These theories were buttressed by the slow spread of the virus in Africa – spurring theories that high levels of melanin production might be operating as a protectant. In the short time since then, it has become painfully clear that COVID-19 has not passed over the homes of Black people; but rather, Black people are dying at disproportionate rates particularly in North America (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). In the United States, where race-based health data is more readily available, there are alarming figures from states like Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana. For example, close to 70% of COVID-19 deaths in Chicago involved African Americans, despite making up only 30% of the total population, and these patterns are mirrored in many other cities across the country (Reyes, Husain, Gutowski, Clair, & Pratt, 2020).

Canadian governments have been reticent to collect race-based health data prior to and following the COVID-19 outbreak, however they are beginning to relent following increased pressure from health practitioners and advocates (Black Health Leaders, 2020; Pinto, 2020). Preliminary public health data from Toronto is already showing that “people living in areas with the highest proportion of low-income earners or areas that have the highest proportion of recent immigrants and high unemployment rates experienced a higher rate of both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations”(DeClerq, 2020). We have known for some time that social determinants including race, class, education, and environment impact health outcomes in both every day and emergency situations alike (Mikkonen & Raphael, 2010). With this knowledge, it is clear that Black communities, including immigrants and refugees, in both Canada and the United States are at a higher risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19. These communities are exposed to risks such as underlying health conditions stemming from conditions of poverty; living in densely populated communities and households; working in employment in sectors deemed ‘essential’; and, facing barriers to adequate healthcare including racism – to name a few (Commodore-Mensah et al., 2018; Francis, 2010; Pinto, 2020; Smith & Ley, 2008).

Unfortunately, health risks are not the only challenges Black and African diaspora communities are facing in North America as a result of COVID-19. There have been many cascading effects from the loss of income hitting families that are already on the margins. In my own community work, I have observed how East African newcomers and immigrants in Canada are facing significant barriers when trying to access timely information and resources – adding to the anxiety people are already experiencing as a result of COVID-19. Language and technology barriers are making it difficult for people to access and interpret things like guidance coming from health authorities, the web of financial benefits announced by different levels of government, shifting instructions coming from school boards, availability of emergency housing and food banks, and social distancing bylaws. Resources that require application processes or downloaded programs only serve to complicate things further. In addition, social distancing measures mean that they cannot rely upon support provided in-person, and having to navigate virtual assistance presents yet another barrier.

Community Resilience and Ingenuity

At the time of writing, it appears that Black and African diaspora communities will continue to face significant health, social and economic losses as a result of COVID-19. While this is a matter of grave concern, it is important to keep sight of the fact that these communities are not simply passive casualties of this pandemic. There are countless examples of grassroots systems of social support, crowdsourced resources, political advocacy, and community innovations. For example, Black Lives Matter – Toronto crowdsourced over $40,000 for a Black Emergency Fund for people who have lost income, and also collaborated with FoodShare to offer 454 large food boxes to families experiencing food insecurity (Black Lives Matter – Toronto, 2020). The Calgary-based community organization Excel Family and Youth Society has over 15,000 Facebook followers. It has used this platform to host live broadcasts providing timely and extensive COVID-19 related information to Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in their native languages. They also promptly set up a hotline for individuals needing support to complete government benefits applications (Excel Family and Youth Society, 2020).

In addition, while there has been growing concern regarding the impact that reduced remittances might have on low-income countries, there have been many diaspora-led transnational efforts aimed at supporting African governments and communities in their fight against COVID-19. A U.S.-based Kenyan diaspora media company organized  ‘Diaspora Skip Lunch Feed Kenya’ – a campaign to provide direct cash transfers to people in Kenya living in poverty and facing addition challenges as a result of COVID-19 (Kikuyu Diaspora Media Inc., 2020).  In another example, the Africa COVID-19 Response Toolkit is a robust set of opensource technological resources to support African governments as they respond to COVID-19 (Africa COVID-19 Response Toolkit, 2020). This initiative emerged out of a nucleus of volunteer Ethiopian diaspora tech professionals that mobilized following a single Tweet (Endale, 2020). Despite the precarious times we are in, it is important that we highlight and document these efforts and accomplishments in addition to the disheartening challenges. Without this, we continue the historical cycle of pathologizing Black and African communities and feed into the proverbial ‘single story’ (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently describes it) we all know too well by now. Our collective goal should be not only to eradicate COVID-19, but also to ensure that the adverse social, economic and cultural impacts do not live longer than the virus itself.

References Cited

Adichie, C. N. (2009). The Danger of a Single Story. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

Africa COVID-19 Response Toolkit. (2020). Retrieved from https://github.com/africa-covid-19-response-toolkit

Black Health Leaders. (2020). Black Leaders Respond to the CMOH. Retrieved from https://www.allianceon.org/news/Black-Health-Leaders-Respond-CMOH

Black Lives Matter – Toronto (2020). [Facebook]. Retrieved May 8, 2020 from https://www.facebook.com/313499695512194/posts/1340135826181904/?d=n

Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html

Commodore-Mensah, Y., Matthie, N., Wells, J., B Dunbar, S., Himmelfarb, C. D., Cooper, L. A., & Chandler, R. D. (2018). African Americans, African Immigrants, and Afro-Caribbeans Differ in Social Determinants of Hypertension and Diabetes: Evidence from the National Health Interview Survey. Journal of racial and ethnic health disparities, 5(5), 995-1002.

DeClerq, K. (2020, May 5). Toronto to begin tracking racial and socio-economic data in COVID-19 patients. CTV News. Retrieved from https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/toronto-to-begin-tracking-racial-and-socio-economic-data-in-covid-19-patients-1.4926220

Endale, M. [@MikeEndale]. (2020). [Twitter]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/MikeEndale

Excel Family and Youth Society (2020). [Facebook]. Retrieved May 8, 2020 from https://www.facebook.com/ExcelFamily/about/?ref=page_internal

Francis, J. (2010). Poor Housing Outcomes among African Refugees in Metro Vancouver.Canadian Issues, 59-63.

Kikuyu Diaspora Media Inc. (2020). Diaspora Skip Lunch Feed Kenya, Covid-19 Initiative. Retrieved from https://kenyadiasporamedia.com/diaspora-skip-lunch-feed-kenya-covid-19-initiative-2/

Mikkonen, J., & Raphael, D. (2010). Social determinants of health: The Canadian facts. In: YorkUniversity, School of Health Policy and Management Toronto. Retrieved from https://thecanadianfacts.org/The_Canadian_Facts.pdf

Pinto, A. D. (2020). Collecting data on race during the COVID-19 pandemic to identify inequities. 5. Retrieved from https://upstreamlab.files.wordpress.com/2020/04/upstream-lab-collecting-data-on-race-during-covid-brief-final-for-circulation-1.pdf

Reyes, C., Husain, N., Gutowski, C., Clair, S. S., & Pratt, G. (2020, April 7). Chicago’s coronavirus disparity: Black Chicagoans are dying at nearly six times the rate of white residents, data show. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.chicagotribune.com/coronavirus/ct-coronavirus-chicago-coronavirus-deaths-demographics-lightfoot-20200406-77nlylhiavgjzb2wa4ckivh7mu-story.html

Smith, H., & Ley, D. (2008). Even in Canada? The Multiscalar Construction and Experience of Concentrated Immigrant Poverty in Gateway Cities. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 98(3), 686-713. doi:10.1080/00045600802104509


[1] In this paper, I focus on Black and African diaspora communities in North America. This includes both historical communities with roots to the Black Atlantic slave trade (e.g. African Americans), as well as diasporic communities constituted by contemporary refugee and immigration flows from Africa and the Caribbean. While these communities are incredibly heterogenous and differ in innumerable ways, processes of racialization often serve to mask these differences and bring these communities together in a shared experience – for better or for worse.


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