Dr. Christine Fahim

Early in the pandemic, a team of researchers at Unity Health Toronto noticed an increase in stigma and racism faced by Asian communities. They partnered with Chinese Canadian advocacy organizations and set out to study the link between racism and COVID-19.

The project, ‘Combating misinformation, fear and stigma in response to the COVID-19 outbreak,’ was one of the first federally funded studies about COVID-19 at Unity Health in March 2020.

Since then, the work has grown and adapted, says Dr. Christine Fahim, the scientist leading the Team for Implementation, Evaluation and Sustainability at the St. Michael’s Hospital Knowledge Translation Program, who spearheaded the research. Although the initial focus of the study was the stigma surrounding Chinese communities, Fahim says it quickly evolved to explore other stigmatizing issues arising from the pandemic like mask wearing and beliefs about how the virus spreads. The ultimate goal of the study is to learn more about the pandemic response so policymakers and leaders can develop improved tools and processes for similar situations that may arise in the future.

The team has interviewed 59 members of the public (approximately half of whom self-identify as Chinese), 23 health care providers, and 20 policymakers. The team also surveyed over 1,800 Ontarians. Guided by the Health Stigma and Discrimination Framework, the study’s questions focus on stigma and beliefs surrounding the pandemic, but also on the pandemic response of each organization and what could be done differently in the future to improve.

“We’re still in the midst of data collection, but one thing that struck me was how fast everybody’s concerns are changing,” Dr. Fahim says. “We’ve witnessed just how quickly a stigma can be driven towards a certain group. Our research needs to keep up. When we’re telling these stories, we’re telling them within a broader contextual system of oppression and power.”

The project has been extended to 2023. While the group is still in the data collection phase, by the end of this summer or early fall, they will have qualitative and survey results to share and ultimately, apply to new policies and initiatives. The team hopes the findings of the study will help to create a greater understanding surrounding stigma and misinformation, while informing people and organizations so they can implement new strategies and processes going forward.

By: Mackenzie Patterson

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