It’s been over two years now since the first COVID-19 lockdowns were implemented across Canada. Two years on and we’re living in a very different world. COVID-19 has laid bare the vulnerabilities in our public health system and has shown government, at all levels, that there is much to do enhance pandemic preparedness. Multiple waves of COVID-19 and the coming and going of restrictions across provincial jurisdictions have produced a pervasive sense of uncertainty for many. What has been consistent, however, is the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on poor, racialized, and Two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (2SLGBTQ+) communities. At the same time, the public has been forced to reckon with the inconvenient truth of systemic racism in a way that, perhaps, they have not done before. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the execution of eight people in Atlanta, including six Asian women in March 2021, served as the catalyst for a series of anti-racism protests across the globe. As we reflect on the past two years, we must not glaze over the unique challenges COVID-19 brought to members of the Black, East Asian, and 2SLGBTQ+ community.
Between November 2020 and October 2021, we spoke to fifty-nine gay, bisexual, queer, and other men who have sex with men (GBQM) of colour in three of Canada’s largest cities (Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal) about their experiences with discrimination during COVID-19. Our findings from the Engage COVID-19 study show that GBQM of colour faced higher rates of discrimination and harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic following racist messaging about the origins and transmissibility of the virus. East Asian and Black GBQM were among the most affected.
For many East Asian and Black GBQM in our study, verbal harassment and social exclusion were not new experiences. Nor is COVID-19 the first viral epidemic where communities of colour are imagined as vectors of disease. We don’t have to go back far in Canada’s history to observe minority communities being scapegoated during public health crises. Let us consider the moral panic around Ebola that targeted African immigrants or the racist discourses that informed the treatment of Chinese communities in Canada during the early 2000s SARS outbreak. Say nothing of the way that some members of the public respond to the ongoing HIV epidemic. Researchers have found, for example, anti-Black racism and HIV stigma have created an environment where Black gay men are treated as undesirable sexual partners based on discriminatory narratives about sexual risk (Arscott et al. 2020). More recently, news media have implicitly (and explicitly) described monkeypox as an African disease, linked to Black people, while outbreaks are impacting diverse populations around the globe. No, in many ways we find ourselves in familiar territory. What we found, however, was that COVID-19 created new opportunities for people to engage in bigotry.
For example, East Asian participants across all three cities reported multiple forms of racist harassment in their everyday lives. Be it on the street, the subway, the mall, or online chatrooms, strangers made it clear to many East Asian GBQM we interviewed that they were not wanted and that they did not belong. “You br[ought] the virus to us,” a stranger said. “Your people have done a bad thing to the world,” said another. Many of these incidents took place in public spaces. In none of these reported cases did someone else intervene. These encounters remain a concern for members of the East Asian community, as a recent report published by the Toronto Police Service (TPS) found that reported anti-Asian hate crimes were higher in 2021 than 2020.
Black GBQM we spoke with also described experiencing more surveillance during COVID-19. Although face masks were recommended—and in some cases, mandated—as a COVID-19 prevention measure, Black men across Canada shared their concerns about how face masks put them in harm’s way because they were more likely to be perceived as ‘threats.’ Prior to COVID-19, it was common for Black men to be policed in public spaces under suspicion of engaging in criminal activity (Rizvi 2021). These experiences were also shared by some of the Black GBQM we interviewed. During COVID-19, face masks (particularly homemade face masks) have been perceived by some members of the public as a sign of gang membership. Therefore, the racist fear of an unidentified, presumed-to-be-criminal Black male figure resulted in many Black men being subjected to increased surveillance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has taken on a toll on all Canadians. It has affected our physical and mental health in ways we are still trying to understand and respond to. 2SLGBTQ+ populations faced unique challenges as participants in our study described sustained feelings of loneliness, disruptions in access to primary health services, and in some cases, drug shortages (e.g., pre-exposure prophylaxis, hormone replacement therapy). It has transformed how we interact with friends and family. As we move toward ‘a new normal,’ as we seek to reconnect with friends and family, we must also recommit ourselves to addressing varied intersecting forms of discrimination wherever and however it appears. The health of our communities depends on it.
This means calling out racist stereotypes in conversations and intervening when we bear witness to harassment in public. This not only means supporting your Black and East Asian peers, it also means addressing other forms of discrimination like anti-Indigenous racism, transphobia, and ableism, all of which remain prevalent during COVID-19. Systemic racism is a public health crisis (Devakumar et al. 2020; Calvente 2021; Dryden and Nnorom 2021). Tackling racism during and beyond the COVID-19 epidemic means that we are attentive to the experiences of marginalized communities. This requires the purposeful and ethical collection of sociodemographic data—including race-based data—to ensure that we understand, and are responsive to, the specific impacts of epidemics on different communities. This work also demands that institutions confront their histories of racism to improve the kinds of relationships they can have with racialized and 2SLGBTQ+ populations.
So, as we continue to reflect on the past two years, let’s also consider the ‘new normal’ as an opportunity. Let’s try to imagine disease prevention, healthcare, and community in more expansive ways. It may be a challenge, but combatting racism is possible, and the responsibility lies on all of us. The number of reported monkeypox cases in Canada continues to rise, with GBQM being the most impacted communities to date. GBQM have been targeted as scapegoats for the spread of the virus in Canada and international media has depicted Black people as the face of the virus. Black GBQM, then, are particularly vulnerable to discrimination as cases increase domestically. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) have been quick in denouncing racist and homophobic reporting on monkeypox, but the COVID-19 and HIV epidemics have shown us that combatting stigma will require vigilance on our part. This Pride month, let us remember that the fight against stigma and discrimination continues for many of us. This ‘new normal’ is an opportunity; let’s try to imagine care and community differently.
This research was recently presented at the virtual Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR) Annual Conference. Our complete findings will be shared in an upcoming journal article entitled, “Unpacking Racism amid Intersecting Epidemics of HIV and COVID-19: Narratives from Racialized Canadian Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Men” by Cornel Grey, Ian Liujia Tian, Shayna Skakoon-Sparling, Emerich Daroya, Ben Klassen, David Lessard, Mark Gaspar, Jad Sinno, Jordan M. Sang, Amaya Perez-Brumer, Nathan J. Lachowsky, David M. Moore, Jody Jollimore, Trevor A. Hart, Joseph Cox, and Daniel Grace.
Written by Cornel Grey, Ian Liujia Tian, and Daniel Grace
Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto
Arscott, Joyell, Janice Humphreys, Elizabeth Merwin, and Michael Relf. 2020. ‘“That Guy Is Gay and Black. That’s a Red Flag.” How HIV Stigma and Racism Affect Perception of Risk Among Young Black Men Who Have Sex with Men’. AIDS and Behavior 24 (1): 173–84. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10461-019-02607-4.
Calvente, Lisa B. Y. 2021. ‘Racism Is a Public Health Crisis! Black Power in the COVID-19 Pandemic’. Cultural Studies35 (2–3): 266–78. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2021.1898017.
Devakumar, Delan, Sujitha Selvarajah, Geordan Shannon, Kui Muraya, Sarah Lasoye, Susanna Corona, Yin Paradies, Ibrahim Abubakar, and E. Tendayi Achiume. 2020. ‘Racism, the Public Health Crisis We Can No Longer Ignore’. The Lancet 395 (10242): e112–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31371-4.
Dryden, OmiSoore, and Onye Nnorom. 2021. ‘Time to Dismantle Systemic Anti-Black Racism in Medicine in Canada’. CMAJ 193 (2): E55–57. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.201579.
Rizvi, Duaa. 2021. ‘Ontario Has a History of Racist Police Checks—Is COVID-19 Bringing Them Back?’ The Pigeon, 21 April 2021. https://the-pigeon.ca/2021/04/21/covid-19-enforcement-by-ontario-police-is-a-new-form-of-carding-say-activists/.
June 27th, 2022