When pandemics and discrimination collide: researchers track the impacts of COVID-19 on Chinese Canadians and learn from their community capacity   

Monday, February 1, 2021

The scale of the coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for Canada's public health system. Yet, in diverse areas from education to seniors' care, from housing affordability to gender inequality, it has become clear that many problems facing Canadians today are not altogether new. If you look closely at our most acute social issues, you can see fault lines that have existed within our communities for generations and that have only deepened in the context of a pandemic.    

According to Dr. Cary Wu, Assistant Professor within the Department of Sociology at York University, this sentiment appears to ring particularly true for Canada's East Asian population. Since the arrival of COVID-19 in Canada, news reports about harassment and discrimination toward Chinese communities have become commonplace.     

While the former President of the United States repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus," discrimination toward Chinese communities across North America is becoming increasingly widespread. The results of a survey conducted by the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice demonstrated that 14% of respondents in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal were concerned that "all Chinese or Asian people carry the coronavirus." Still, Wu emphasizes that current examples of anti-Asian discrimination have simply "exposed this sentiment at the higher level. It's always here. It's always happening. Now we see a spike."  

It is with this spike in mind that he and his co-investigators Dr. Yue Qian and Dr. Rima Wilkes at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Eric B Kennedy at York University, set out to measure the mental health toll on Chinese Canadians after months of pandemic-related stress and the added impacts of heightened discrimination. They wanted to know whether this ongoing strain has caused a mental health gap between white and Chinese Canadians – and a reversal of pre-pandemic data which showed Chinese Canadians self-reporting better mental health than white Canadians.     

Participants across Canada answered survey questions designed to measure two factors: 1) the current state of their mental health, and 2) acute incidents of discrimination.     

In a recent article published in Canadian Diversity journal, the researchers detailed that "only the East Asian-white mental health gap is significant after taking into account gender, education and household income;" East Asian Canadians reported poorer mental health than white Canadians as well as higher levels of discrimination.     

Significantly, once the modeling was altered to control for acute discrimination, the East Asian-white mental health gap was no longer significant. This demonstrates that instances of acute discrimination tied to COVID-19 significantly impact mental health; "every one-unit increase in acute discrimination is associated with 1.85 units increase in mental health symptoms," the team found.    

Informed by scholarship on the social determinants of health as well as minority stress theory – a set of ideas linking experiences of stigma, prejudice and discrimination with higher levels of mental disorders – and backed by their survey findings, Wu and his team are confident in the correlational effects of COVID-19 related discrimination on poorer mental health outcomes. The next steps of their research will be to collect further data points to track the Asian-white mental health gap throughout the evolution of the pandemic.  The Chinese community in Canada is incredibly diverse, and the group-specific mental health interventions needed to support them during crises such as COVID-19 must take the complexity of the community into account.     

This issue of complexity has specifically been taken up in research led by disaster management expert Dr. Aaida A. Mamuji within the School of Administrative Studies at York University.  In light of prevailing narratives of increased discrimination toward Chinese Canadians, Mamuji, alongside co-investigators Dr. Jack L. Rozdilsky, Dr. Charlotte T. Lee, Dr. Njoki Mwarumba, Martin Tubula, and Terri Chu, examined the responses of Chinese diaspora communities to recent instances of Sinophobia as well as the virus itself.    

In-depth conversations conducted with research participants in Toronto, Canada, and Nairobi, Kenya, suggest that the reactions of Chinese diaspora communities must be understood in concert with two key concepts: 1) complexity – stratification in how individuals relate to instances and narratives of Sinophobia, as well as to differing identities within the Chinese diaspora community, and 2) capacity – the community-driven actions taken by the community to protect not only themselves, but also the broader non-Chinese community from the effects of COVID-19. Taken together, these concepts complicate simple narratives of victimization that often arise when talking about anti-Asian discrimination during COVID-19.     

For instance, much of the earliest media coverage of anti-Asian discrimination during COVID-19 reported on declining patronage within Chinese owned businesses. While incidents of discrimination and harassment are indisputable, common narratives overlooked the fact that many businesses primarily served members of the Chinese community itself. Declining business patronage was evidence of social distancing efforts by Chinese Canadians; "they were taking responsible public health actions" early on in the pandemic, emphasizes Mamuji.     

Many of the early virus containment measures adopted by the Chinese community in Toronto became official recommendations by the city and the province months later; however, with shifting public health advice early on in the pandemic, safety precautions such as mask-wearing became a further source of stigmatization for the Chinese diaspora community.    

Had non-Chinese Canadians paid greater attention to the kinds of containment measures being implemented within Chinese communities – informed by their connection to Chinese media sources, as well as friends and family in China during the earliest days of the evolving pandemic – we may have arrived at key public health learnings earlier. And just as importantly, the narratives surrounding Chinese Canadians during the pandemic may have focused less on stigmatization, and more on their capacity for pandemic counter-measures and community mobilization.     

This research aims to shape the actions of emergency managers within municipalities and beyond. Upcoming phases of work will be conducted collaboratively with emergency management personnel to ensure that issues related to racial stigma are a part of pandemic planning, public health campaigns, and the implementation of pandemic counter-measures.     

It is also crucial to apply learnings about the complexity and capacity of marginalized groups to other populations that may be adversely affected by discrimination in the future. "The disease is changing; so is the discrimination. It started as very anti-Chinese, but now we're seeing it attached to emerging ‘hotspots’ across the world, and certain areas of the workforce, such as meat-packing plants" explained Mamuji. By learning from the diverse, proactive responses within Chinese diaspora communities during COVID-19, policymakers, emergency managers, and community workers, will be better equipped to handle complicated issues of stigma during future crises.  



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