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A year of stigma: COVID-19 fear leads to shaming of racial, religious groups in Manitoba

Hutterites felt the glare of strangers when they ventured beyond their colonies. It didn’t matter if they had no trace of COVID-19. Their colonies were branded last summer as Manitoba’s hotspot for virus infection. Some Hutterites were confronted by strangers while in public, or even refused service at businesses. Hutterites — Anabaptists who live communally — wondered if the public shaming would impact farming, their livelihood. “If their community gets identified as having cases, it might impact their ability to get out and actually collect the harvest,” said Ian Kleinsasser, a school teacher and historian from Crystal Spring Hutterite Colony, south of Winnipeg. “That was one of our biggest concerns around harvest time, that COVID would somehow put an end to our harvest.” The Hutterites were proactive, Kleinsasser said. They consulted with public health and ordered all their drivers to stay in their combines when on the fields, no exceptions. The communal way of life in places like Crystal Spring Hutterite Colony was upended by the arrival of the novel coronavirus. (Submitted by Ian Kleinsasser) Thankfully, he said, they weren’t impeded from working with their neighbours during harvest season. In time, COVID-19 cases on colonies dropped and the stigma attached to Hutterites dissipated. But there was always another target. One year into the pandemic, the public discourse on the global health crisis has focused on infections and deaths, lockdowns and closures, but it was also a year tarnished by stigmatization. Treated like a pariah Numerous groups, often from marginalized communities, have been perceived as endangering public health, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. “People were under tremendous amount of stress, and yes, I guess visible minorities are easy to blame at a time like this,” Kleinsasser said. Public health officials tried to caution Manitobans against such behaviour, but at the same time various targets to blame were presented, said Christopher Fries, a health sociologist at the University of Manitoba. “Health promoters have had to walk this really strange line because they’ve had to actually define certain behaviours as unhealthy and therefore deviant. “But the thing is … I think [that] opens the door to stigmatization,” he said. A sign at the U.S.-Canada border crossing at Emerson, Man., on March 24, 2020. Truckers are among those who have been accused of spreading COVID-19, and some say they have been refused access to restrooms while doing their jobs.(Sean Kavanagh/CBC) The targets of derision have changed rapidly. First, it was people of Chinese descent. The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was first found in China, which was reason enough for some people to level scorn. Filipinos were targeted, too. Some of Manitoba’s early coronavirus carriers flew in from the Philippines. Truckers have been refused access to restrooms while doing their jobs. Hutterites threatened to file a human rights complaint if the province didn’t stop identifying the COVID-19 cases reported on their colonies, unless there was a pressing health reason to do so. In between, bar-hopping by young people — a cohort often employed in essential jobs — was blamed for spreading COVID-19 early in the pandemic’s second wave. Some even disparaged the first people to die of the virus, suggesting “underlying medical conditions” were justification for their deaths. In this pandemic, the tendency of people to scapegoat was borne out of a feeling they were doing their part by staying home, but others were not, said RJ Leland, an assistant professor of moral philosophy at the U of M. “The more powerful the demands are for people to pitch in on behalf of the common good and the more serious the threat … I think the more natural it is for people to be really frustrated when they see other folks not pitching in,” Leland said. Even so, he said it’s no excuse for the few to denigrate an entire demographic of people. Public display of racism One driver missed that message in the pandemic’s early days. Hong Su remembers clearly the large sign in the back window of the blue truck driving down Winnipeg’s Main Street last March. “F–k off China,” it said. “When I saw that slogan, I got very angry,” said Su, a financial advisor. “I don’t know why he put that sign up and showed it while driving in the city. “I don’t know how to stop him, I don’t know how to talk to him, so I called the police,” said Su, who gave police the driver’s licence plate number. It was traced to an out-of-town driver and the matter was referred to the RCMP. They say charges weren’t laid because it appears no crime was committed, though they said the sign was a “poor choice.” Around the same time, he experienced racism up-close when he overheard a man at a vehicle repair shop condemning Chinese people for his woes, he said. Manitoba Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin has routinely cautioned against the dangers of such stigma, which he warned may prevent people from getting tested for COVID-19 or revealing their personal interactions to contact tracers. Highlighting Hutterite cases ‘clearly a mistake’ Psychologist Katherine Starzyk said the province’s messaging cou