There’s no getting ‘beyond COVID’ without addressing systemic racism

Ontario’s inequitable vaccine rollout shows we must repair the broken systems that created these disastrous pandemic conditions
Photo: Ontario Premier Doug Ford. (Moodycamera Photography / Flickr)
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In February 2021 — Black History Month — I won a nomination campaign to run as the federal NDP candidate for York South—Weston. Almost a year earlier, I launched a personal campaign to repatriate my father from Somalia.

It was the back and forth, racist and bureaucratic response from the Liberal government to stranded Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic that forced me to think seriously about the state of electoral politics. All of the mutual aid attempts  —  funding groceries for neighbours, organizing community check-ins for those who had fallen ill, supporting essential workers, colleagues, friends and family — put into stark consideration what life would really be like for those most at the margins of this traumatic and horrific disease.

Running for office is about making sure many of us do not get forgotten in the “build back better” rhetoric.

On the first day of the lockdown, I was knee-deep applying pressure to organize emergency repatriation transportation for those in Somalia wanting to come home to Canada. Months into the pandemic, I was organizing public education workshops on systemic racism. A year into the pandemic, and I’m now running for elected office.

None of these things are by accident; all of them are the result of a deeply broken political system. Running for office is about making sure many of us do not get forgotten in the “build back better” rhetoric.

Earlier this year, the province of Ontario released the names of the members of the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Secretariat, responsible for providing “advice to the Minister of Health and the Solicitor General on the logistics and operational planning associated with delivering COVID-19 vaccines to Ontarians.” Colonel Joseph Serge Labbé, commander of the failed Canadian peacekeeping mission in Somalia that resulted in the 1993 torture and murder of Shidane Arone, was on that list.

In the wake of the Somalia Affair, which included a public inquiry that issued a damning report, allegations were made that Labbé told his troops, “I am looking forward to the first dead Somali.” Not only is Labbé a decorated military official, but in 2005 he received a Meritorious Service Cross (military division), an award given to individuals whose achievements are said to have brought honour to the Canadian Forces and to Canada.

Labbé’s appointment tells a broader story of systemic racism and vaccine distribution and the lack of care from Doug Ford’s provincial Conservative government.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has relied on the support of the Somali community in his Etobicoke North riding. In fact, the 2016 census showed that most Somali speakers in Toronto live in central Etobicoke.

Many will remember former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s engagement with the Somali community and the consequences for community members across the city as a result of his thoughtless decision-making. The media’s portrayal of Somalis as criminals was starkest during his tenure. The infamous leaked photo of Rob with his arms around three young Black and Arab men sparked the search for the video showing Rob using crack cocaine. This resulted in the June 2013 raids, dubbed “Project Traveller” by police, that saw Toronto Police Services storm an apartment building on Dixon Road, arresting over 40 men, primarily young Somalis.

Though his name is no longer on the list of members of the vaccine secretariat, which as of April 1 came under new leadership, Labbé’s appointment tells a broader story of systemic racism and vaccine distribution and the lack of care from Doug Ford’s provincial Conservative government — one that most have lost faith in to appropriately protect the health and well-being of Ontarians.

Superficial understandings of diversity, equity and inclusion tend to stop at representation  —  substituting one person for another, one social identity for another.

Black and racialized communities are feeling the brunt of this pandemic. In Toronto, Black communities have experienced more COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths than other groups, and yet vaccine inequities mean they have been vaccinated at lower rates.

While many of us may not expect much in the way of addressing systemic racism from Ford and his Conservative government in Ontario ,  with more than 50 per cent of the Black population in Canada based in Ontario, there is much to be concerned about. Who the province appoints to guide the COVID-19 vaccine distribution has the ability to change the life and death conditions for many who live in this province, making a significant impact on the lives of Black and racialized communities.

Last week, no doubt in response to weeks of mounting public pressure over its failure to protect Black and racialized communities who make up a disproportionate amount of healthcare and other frontline workers, the Ford government finally pivoted and announced that it would be prioritizing vaccinations in the most affected neighbourhoods.

Superficial understandings of diversity, equity and inclusion tend to stop at representation  —  substituting one person for another, one social identity for another. There is no room for performative representation when the lives of those most marginalized hang in the balance. We don’t need more “diverse” groups of people, engaging in the same political games that mean some of us get vaccinated and others of us don’t. It should be as simple as creating a phone number for people to call and set up an appointment.

Without a nuanced and equitable approach to vaccination, without responsibility from all levels of government for tenants facing eviction, without a deep understanding of how poverty impacts people’s ability to recover from COVID at home, especially without the paid sick days that Doug Ford has refused to implement, there can be no responsible recovery that considers systemic oppression.

The public is being sold the idea that “shots in arms” will temporarily repair the broken systems that created the pandemic conditions we are experiencing in this country. It didn’t have to be this way. It does not have to be this way moving forward either. Politics has always been about the people, and people-powered organizing can get us the changes that we need for a more equitable world. You just have to believe it’s possible.

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