Opinion

As COVID ravages the diaspora, Canadian children of South Asian descent are in crisis

Canada’s largest school board acknowledged the devastating and disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on India, and by extension South Asian children, in an email to all parents last week. The message from the Toronto District School Board was crystal clear: South Asian children and youth are struggling, and they need support.

As physicians working with children, we have observed escalating stress in our clinics, hospitals, schools and communities. As Indo-Canadians ourselves, we have felt the catastrophic impacts of COVID-19 on our community and also understand mounting fears that the novel B.1.617 variant (the so-called “Indian variant”) will further fuel racist rhetoric toward a population that is already grieving. As evidenced by race-based data throughout the pandemic, your community’s COVID-19 experience is heavily dictated by the colour of your skin.

We worry greatly about the traumatic and long-lasting effects this will have on children.

According to the 2016 Canadian census, more than 1.4 million Canadians identify as East Indian or Punjabi, making it one of the largest racial groups in Canada. For these Canadians, there is a real and palpable fear that loved ones “back home” will not survive the pandemic. Many of us either know someone who has died from COVID-19 or is actively struggling with it now. Children are regularly overhearing phone calls that bear terrible news of family members dying overseas because of inadequate oxygen supply or lack of ventilator support. This is compounded by vivid media images of mass cremations, chilling and prominent on our household screens.

The disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on racialized communities is more evident than ever before. Brampton, which is home to many Indo-Canadian essential workers and young families, has hit test positivity rates of more than 22 per cent – among the highest rates in the country. The community continues to face stigma and racial gaslighting while Premier Doug Ford’s office continues to deny an adequate number of paid sick days and the construction of a second hospital remains a distant reality.

Children in these households have heard their families struggle with financial uncertainty and the duties of “essential work,” all while fearing for the health of parents and grandparents. Last month, the death of 13-year-old Brampton resident, Emily Victoria Viegas, gave COVID a pediatric face; there is now a fear for children’s health. In our patients, this is manifesting as lost sleep, changes in behaviour and mood, and with schools in lockdown, an inability to escape from the worries of COVID in households in “hot spot communities.”

Indeed, the pandemic has further emphasized pre-existing structural disparities, particularly around racial lines. As these are gradually being recognized, damaging and marginalizing rhetoric has taken an irreversible toll. Rather than adapting public health strategies to the unique needs of high-risk groups that make up a large proportion of the population, South Asian children have repeatedly watched their families be met with finger-pointing. Instead of being thanked as “front-line heroes,” children of South Asian taxi drivers, factory workers, grocery cashiers and health-care workers have observed their parents shamed and criticized in the media and government communications. This comes in addition to the huge emotional toll of the arduous Indian farmers’ protest in Delhi, which has gripped Indo-Canadian families for months.

While acknowledgement from the TDSB is a step in the right direction, culturally appropriate, multi-generational resources and mental health supports need to be readily accessible to support children and youth grappling with this sort of multi-faceted grief. Collectively, we must recognize this now and work to create safe spaces for children and youth to safely explore and process information – in our classrooms, our homes and our health-care facilities. Educators and children’s health-care professionals need support and training in facilitating these conversations for South Asian youth. Mental health resources must be quickly pivoted to online platforms to support grieving students and be made accessible through community hubs. Further, parents must be offered evidence-based strategies and counselling support to empower them in buffering the impacts of this crisis on their children.  

More than ever, we need policies that support racialized families in breaking disabling cycles that are fed by systems that marginalize and stigmatize. Complex problems require equitable, multi-faceted solutions – adequate paid sick days, meaningful community engagement, and funding multi-generational mental health supports are a place to immediately begin.

We must not only acknowledge the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on the South Asian-Canadian community but we must also understand the root causes of disparity and inequity and work together for changes in policy. South Asian-Canadian children and youth have been grieving for months before this debilitating third wave. We must not wait for the end of the pandemic to begin healing.  

Both authors contribute to @PunjabiKidsHealth (on Instagram) to provide culturally relevant developmental and mental health support to children of Punjabi descent.

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Authors

Chandandeep Kaur Bal

Contributor

Chandandeep Kaur Bal is a resident physician in the department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto. She is a cis-female, Indo-Canadian Sikh who was born and raised in N.E. Calgary. She moved to Toronto for residency after completing medical school.

Ripudaman Singh Minhas is a developmental pediatrician working in the Women’s and Children’s Health Program at Unity Health Toronto, University of Toronto. He is a cis-male Indo-Canadian Sikh and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto. He was born in India and currently resides in Brampton.

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