Scarborough’s heavy COVID burden highlights need for better health services in Eastern GTA

Pop-up Vaccine Clinic
People wait in line at a vaccine pop-up vaccine clinic at L'Amoreaux Collegiate on May 6, 2021. The pandemic disproportionately affected Scarborough, highlighting the need for better health services in Scarborough and the Eastern GTA. (Shutterstock
Article Date

Don Campbell

How has COVID disproportionately harmed Indigenous and racialized communities in the Eastern GTA? How can we foster resilience through community relationships? How can we design a healthcare system that services our community’s diverse needs?

These were among the questions explored at the Eastern GTA Community Health Pulse, a virtual event hosted by U of T Scarborough involving health experts, community leaders and academics from Scarborough and the Eastern GTA.

“One thing is for certain, we cannot return to normal,” said Notisha Massaquoi, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Society at U of T Scarborough.

“We have to be at the forefront of how we address healthcare needs in Scarborough and the Eastern GTA, and build a better system.”

Notisha Massaquoi

Assistant Professor Notisha Massaquoi spent 20 years as executive director of Women's Health in Women's Hands Community Health Centre. 

Dr. Bert Lauwers, executive vice-president and interim chief of staff at the Scarborough Health Network (SHN), said the social determinants of health played an important role in COVID’s impact on Scarborough.

The social determinants of health are the personal, social, economic and environmental factors that impact individual and population health. Factors include income and social status, working conditions, physical environment as well as race and racism.

Lauwers highlighted some unsettling stats about Scarborough’s COVID experience.

The SHN had more days with patients in intensive care for COVID treatments than any other hospital network in Ontario. It also had the second highest rate of patients transferred to other facilities due to shortage of space.

He said some hospitals in the network are antiquated, which presented challenges when patients had to be isolated.

On April 18, 2021, at the peak of the third wave, 215 patients were being treated for COVID; another 149 patients were admitted as potential COVID patients.

“In one 24-hour period, we admitted 42 patients, which to my knowledge is the highest number of any institution in Ontario,” he said. 

Since March 2020, almost 500 people have died in Scarborough hospitals because of COVID. 

Liben Gebremikael, executive director of TAIBU Community Health Centre, said Indigenous and racialized communities were impacted by COVID at an alarming rate.

Only nine per cent of Toronto’s population identifies as Black, but this community experienced 24 per cent of Toronto’s COVID cases.  Scarborough residents, 70 per cent of whom identify as racialized, experienced some of the highest rates of COVID cases in the GTA. 

Gebremikael said health inequities are a systemic issue tied to historic and institutional racism.

“COVID is like an X-Ray–it has shown the damage that exists under the skin,” he said. “Any response has to be based on an understanding that these issues are systemic in nature.”

TAIBU, which is located in Malvern and serves Black-identifying communities, administered more than 23,000 vaccines, provided more than 10,000 COVID support services and answered more than 3,000 calls on its COVID hotline.

We have to be at the forefront of how we address healthcare needs in Scarborough and the Eastern GTA, and build a better system.

Massaquoi applauded TAIBU’s work but said the organization shouldered an unfair burden. She said racialized groups’ access to healthcare services has historically been lacking in the Eastern GTA, and that compromises on healthcare options need to end.

“We have limited services that are culturally appropriate, there are a limited number of Black healthcare providers, and a limited number of healthcare providers that have built trusting relationships with residents in our community,” she said.

What can be done to build a better health future for Scarborough and the Eastern GTA?

Building trust in the system is an important start, said Gebremikael. He said when engaging with communities it’s crucial to be honest and transparent about the approach, and to use language and engagement practices that are meaningful to the community.

He said many equity issues have been addressed with short-term or reactionary solutions, but systemic issues are longstanding and historic.

“We have a system that wasn’t designed to support Indigenous and Black populations, so we need to start thinking about long-term investments and strategies as a start.”

Better race-based health data is also needed. Massaquoi said Scarborough healthcare providers can take the lead to better understand the unique experiences of their community.

Health experts and community members will tackle these issues and others during a symposium on health inequities in the Eastern GTA, scheduled for early 2022.