featured Healthcare Racism

Building resilience and community agency during a pandemic

This sign urging residents to take COVID-19 seriously was posted in Cherry Brook and Lake Loon in early March. Photo Brenton Sparks, via Global News

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – COVID-19 is a humbling example of our collective powerlessness and interdependence. Government institutions across the country have been doing their best to cope by implementing the rigorous public health measures that have transformed our day-to-day lives. For those of us with jobs that provide flexibility, or those who qualify for the CERB, those measures have largely been a success. We’ve also seen a flourishing, in some senses, of a form of communal solidarity – neighbours helping other neighbours, birthday parades for children and the elderly, and the list goes on. 

Yet, as many have noted in the past few weeks, the people who disproportionately face the terrible consequences of this disease are poor, Black, and/or newcomers to Canada. Those who have borne the brunt of this disease have also borne the brunt of governmental and societal disrespect. While some of us can fuss over how to get our camera working on Zoom, or decry the lack of yeast or chicken thighs on supermarket shelves, others are caring for elderly patients in long-term care homes with no ability to get a test due to their immigration status, or working in meat packing plants with no capacity for social distancing. The loss of life as a result of this racialized economic hierarchy has been devastating, and unnecessary

Governments have little room to maneuver once a pandemic starts. The time for governments to really prepare, according to Dr. Sandra Crouse Quinn of the University of Maryland, was years ago. Dr. Quinn’s 2008 research into how to communicate risk and build resilience during a pandemic with underserved communities offers a roadmap for what governments must do in the future to build trust and enable community agency. Quinn offers a model of community-based risk communication and education that focuses, crucially, on governments building trust with community members before a pandemic occurs. 

This open, dynamic form of education and engagement lays the groundwork for the difficult and messy task of health promotion in the middle of a crisis. Quinn’s model allows, for instance, for community members to assess neighbourhood resilience by becoming “lay health advisors” or by conducting community hardiness assessments with a goal to understand and address vulnerabilities before they develop into disasters. Instead of using policing and state coercion as the hammer for which every situation is a nail, Quinn’s model recognizes the need for community input and investment in public health law, meaning that enhanced police surveillance and harassment does not become another indignity that Black communities face.

What’s so vexing – so devastating – is that these tools were always on offer. They just require government leaders to see marginalized communities as valuable, and to see their constituents as partners in promoting health. We can only hope that now, to some degree, senior officials have gotten the message and are willing to make a long overdue change.

See also: Miranda Cain on COVID-19 and the Prestons: “The little we do have, we have done it ourselves”

This article was first published on Dalhousie University’s excellent OpenThink, Empowering Dalhousie PhD students to influence public discourse and policy.

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