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Jason Kenney Under Fire Over Radio Interview Linking Spread of COVID-19 to South Asian ‘Traditions’

Kenney tells radio program South Asian culture is the cause of COVID-19 spread in working-class neighbourhood, not working conditions

November 30, 2020

Jason Kenney is facing a heavy backlash after he told Northeast Calgary’s sizeable South Asian community they need a COVID-19 “wake up call.”

During an appearance on Red-FM, a radio station that serves Calgary’s South Asian community, Alberta’s Premier singled out the community’s traditions as the main cause of Alberta’s out-of-control spread of COVID-19.

“We see a very high level of spread of COVID-19 in the South Asian community,” Kenney told Red-FM host Rishi Nagar.

“We know that it’s a tradition to have big family gatherings at home and we think this is one of the reasons why we have seen a much higher level spread in the community than other parts of the population.”

While Kenney insisted he was not trying to “blame or target anyone,” the Premier rejected the suggestion that COVID-19 levels are higher in racialized working-class communities because they don’t have the luxury of working from home.

“But Premier sir, the problem is … the people living in this area are the taxi drivers, they are the transit drivers, they are the truck drivers, they are working in the cleaning facilities in the airports and other janitorial services are being provided by these people,” Nagar told Kenney. “They can’t stay home.”

Kenney conceded there are “higher levels” of COVID-19 in the community because many “work in the hospitals and long-term care,”  but insisted “40% of the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta goes back to private social functions, gatherings and homes.”

“Generally speaking, workplaces are pretty safe.”

“I’m calling your program with a wake up call,” Kenney said. “We must, must have people understand the new law is no social functions at home.”

Northeast Calgary’s South Asian community has not been impressed by Kenney’s statements, which were viewed as scapegoating the community and :

Matt Wolf, the Premier’s high-paid issues manager, attempted to pour cold water on the growing controversy, pointing to mainstream news stories echoing similar concerns over the unique dangers COVID-19 poses to South Asian communities.

Wolf pointed to a Toronto Star column suggesting South Asians are at greater risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19:

However, even the article cited by Kenney’s issues manager makes the same point that Kenney himself had downplayed in favour of a cultural explanation:

“South Asians have a strong presence in public-facing professions in health care, commercial business, and the service/manufacturing industry, creating a higher risk of acquiring COVID-19 outside of home.”

Many also questioned why the Premier reserved his tough talk for a working-class South Asian community while he remained silent about right-wing anti-mask protesters recently marching through the streets of Calgary.

 

Despite Kenney downplaying working conditions as a social determinant of who gets COVID-19, one recent Canadian study looking at data from Ontario found workers in “lower-paying jobs in the service industry and/or other high-exposure occupations” are among the highest risk for being infected with COVID-19.

Stefan Baral, co-author of the study, told the Calgary Herald that the higher rates of COVID-19 in Northeast Calgary most likely correlate with the number of people who work in public spaces and rely on public transit.

“They’re still out there, delivering Amazon, delivering food,” Baral told the Herald. “Their exposures haven’t really changed that much, in the context of a lockdown or not a lockdown, because they’re considered essential workers.”

On Sunday, Albera’s Government reported 1,608 new COVID-19 cases and 9 deaths as the province’s surging infection rate begins to overwhelm hospital capacity.

Despite calls from doctors and frontline health workers for tougher public health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, Kenney has stated he is ideologically opposed to “indiscriminately violating people’s rights” by enforcing restrictions in the name of public health.

 

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