COVID-19 has been an unwelcome intruder in our homes and communities that continues to wreak havoc on our society. As we survey the damage to lives and livelihoods, there are many inflection points along the way that need to be examined further. I’m concerned about the growing sentiment of COVID-19 related shaming that stigmatizes some communities and has made some people fearful of getting tested or disclosing their COVID-positive status.
I’ve hosted community round tables and reached out to community leaders in Calgary. They have told me stories of families who’ve been subject to blame in their neighbourhood and children who’ve felt targeted at school. It is heartbreaking to hear stories of families who feel ostracized by others because they have fallen victim to the virus. When communities are stressed, we can’t allow toxicity to creep into our daily interactions with our neighbours. Empathy and education are essential to defeating this pathogen.
Firstly, it is true that COVID-19 has hit some ethnically diverse neighbourhoods with greater ferocity than others. Let’s remember one important fact; COVID-19 does not reside in these communities, but is an uninvited stranger. Many people who live in these communities are front line workers who face elevated risks to COVID-19, because they must leave their homes to work. They do so with their heads held high, and certainly deserve our respect. Many of these families live in multi-generational homes, which can also be a contributing factor to the spread of the virus.
I was born and raised in NE Calgary, a first generation Canadian. My parents emigrated from India in the late ‘60s’ and always worked in front line jobs; the only jobs that were available to them. My father worked on the CPR and had to carpool to his job. My mother was a housekeeper who relied on public transit to get to work. My uncle was a bus driver and my aunt worked in a meat plant. Their sense of gratitude for the opportunity to work and be responsible for their own destiny prevailed over any shame at the status of their job. It was all honourable work.
We lived in a multi-generational household where the elders were nurtured at home in their twilight years. Our family culture and traditions were based on supporting each other as a family and treasuring our relationship with grandparents in our home. We had a respectful, dignified way of living and I have cherished memories of those times. These same traditions and values are shared by many cultural communities today.
The second layer around this conversation has to do with the shame that some people feel in contracting the virus. This can be devastating for the impacted person, as he or she grapples with health implications. Some of the first thoughts that come to mind, are, will I be ok? How could I have prevented this? What did I do wrong? I momentarily had the same thought when my husband tested positive; were we not careful enough? We absolutely were, but the reality is, this virus is devious and it hides in plain sight. A COVID-19 positive diagnosis can happen to anyone, anytime, anyplace.
The third layer requires us all to acknowledging those who test positive, encourage them in their recovery and learn from their experience. This will help erode the shame associated with a positive diagnosis. When one sees the faces of neighbours, friends, families and leaders sharing their stories, it helps others cope, and encourages more willingness to ask for help.
Even as we see some brightness on the horizon with the arrival of vaccines, we must recognize this is a time that requires heightened compassion, collaboration, cooperation and cultural sensitivity along with kindness. I would ask all Albertans to extend a virtual hand and a virtual open heart to the friends and neighbours who have been impacted by a COVID-19 positive diagnoses and let them know, there is no shame in this situation. We will have one thing in common with this virus…we will NOT discriminate.
Hon. Rajan Sawhney
Minister of Community and Social Services
MLA, Calgary North East
Rajan Sawhney served as Minister of Community and Social Services from April 30, 2019 to July 7, 2021.