During this unprecedented year, any opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate women’s achievements globally is a welcome distraction from the impact of the COVID pandemic that has consumed our lives.
Women’s History Month sheds light on the many past and present contributions made by over 50 per cent of our Canadian population. However, for us as Black women, we are fighting both for the recovery and inclusion of our stories within the Canadian context, and our meaningful engagement in the sustained action to tackle persistent and profound barriers to women’s success in our country. This month, as we renew the discussion about the fight for gender equality across Canada, we must also discuss the need to support an equitable recovery from COVID-19 that offers economic and social stability for all women.
Black women, in particular, have been deeply impacted by our current health and economic crisis, with Black communities in Toronto having the highest COVID rates, accounting for 21 per cent of reported cases while making up only nine per cent of the overall population. This pattern of racialized disproportionality is repeated across the country.
COVID-19 has lifted the veil off long-ignored historical inequities and amplified gendered race-based differences in how we experience health crises. Black women stand at the intersection of multiple barriers, experiencing the combined effects of racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination, while navigating systems and institutional structures in which entrenched disparities remain the status quo. As a result, anti-Black racism has become more visible and unavoidable in discussing pandemics. It has prompted conversations about who is overexposed as essential frontline workers providing care and critical services, whose susceptibility is compounded due to higher rates of pre-existing health conditions, and who are among the most economically marginalized in Canadian society.
This should come as no surprise since COVID-19 is not the first health crisis to highlight inequalities caused by systemic anti-Black racism. The HIV epidemic was relentless and continues to be so in the Black community. Despite having one of the most robust global responses to HIV/AIDS coupled with universal healthcare, Canada finds itself a country where Black people make up 3.5 per cent of the total population but disproportionately represent 21.9 per cent of all reported HIV cases in Canada.
Black women specifically carry a more significant burden, accounting for 36.5 per cent of all reported HIV cases among women nationally, and in Ontario specifically, Black women made up 55 per cent of all reported cases in 2017. As Black women in Canada, we are fighting three interconnected pandemics: HIV, COVID, and anti-Black racism, all filtered through gender discrimination.
Anti-Black racism shapes all areas of Black women’s lives, limiting life opportunities and leading to poorer health outcomes. In 2016, the unemployment rate among Black women was roughly twice that of non-racialized women (12.2 per cent vs. 6.4 per cent) and the wage gap was significantly more extensive, with Black women earning 59 cents on average for every dollar that non-racialized men earned. Within this larger socio-economic context, anti-Black racism severely limits our access to prevention, treatment, support and care for HIV.
Anti-Black racism determines when we decide (or are able) to seek out help and whom we can trust. Within Canada’s healthcare system, Black, female healthcare providers do not adequately reflect Canada’s population, especially when it comes to infectious disease specialists. There is a loss of autonomy over our own bodies when we are treated by a white male doctor — wary if he maintains the skillset to properly address our concerns and questioning whether conscious or unconscious bias will influence the quality of care we receive. It comes as no surprise that interactions with Canada’s health care system are where some of the most brutal forms of HIV stigma exist. Negative experiences in accessing HIV services, coupled with a legacy of unethical research practices, have left us as Black people with a deep mistrust of the Canadian medical system and disproportionately impacted by the HIV epidemic despite a strong network of services.
As we move towards ending the HIV epidemic by 2025, success will only be achieved if Black women are equal partners and leaders in this work and resources are provided to continue research to develop effective prevention, treatment, support and care models. This past year has forced us to have brave conversations and ask brave questions.
Dr. Notisha Massaquoi, is a principal at Nyanda Consulting and a board member with the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR). Tola Mbulaheni, is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Co-Recipient of a CANFAR Research Grant and Muluba Habanyama is a CANFAR National Ambassador.