SFU prof says scrapping mask mandates is discriminatory because racialized residents suffer disproportionate effects

June Francis points out that they're more likely to have chronic diseases like diabetes, plus they're heavier transit users, making them more likely to contract COVID-19

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      An SFU professor thinks that the B.C. government's decision to lift most mask mandates was not looked at through the lens of racial equality.

      June Francis also alleged in a phone interview with the Straight that the policy actually discriminates against Black and Indigenous people and people of colour.

      The associate professor of marketing in the SFU Beedie School of Business said that this is because racialized people are more likely to suffer chronic diseases like diabetes and live in more crowded living conditions. Plus, Francis noted, they are more likely to rely on public transit and work in occupations that bring them in contact with other people.

      Therefore, according to her, elimination of the mask mandate elevates their likelihood of contracting COVID-19 in comparison to the rest of the population.

      "This public policy is protecting some people and abandoning others," Francis said. "And I mean the word 'abandoning'."

      Last year, Francis was appointed special adviser to SFU's president on antiracism. Plus, she's director of the SFU Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement and chair of the Hogan's Alley Society, which advocates for Black people enduring the legacies of urban renewal.

      "I think the mask mandate was such a small gesture in terms of its impact on the wearer and it had so much potential to protect other people that are now left completely exposed to the virus," Francis said.

      She expressed deep concerns in the interview about those who are immunocompromised, as well as those with asthma, diabetes, and other chronic diseases and those living in neighbourhoods where they're more exposed to contaminants. 

      The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to life, liberty, and security of the person. Francis wonders if the elimination of the mask mandate on public transit, for example, infringes on that right.

      And because those who are from racialized groups are more likely to use public transit, Francis said that dropping the mask mandate is racist.

      Francis also said that this policy raises very serious questions under human-rights law, given that COVID-19 can be a death sentence for some people.

      People no longer have to wear masks on public transit as a result of a decision this week by the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.

      Supreme Court has defined adverse impacts

      It's long been recognized that adverse impacts of public policy and legislation on marginalized populations constitute discrimination.

      A 2020 Supreme Court of Canada decision, Fraser v. Canada, elaborated on this legal concept.

      "Adverse impact discrimination occurs when a seemingly neutral law has a disproportionate impact on members of groups protected on the basis of an enumerated or analogous ground," the ruling stated. "There is no doubt that adverse impact discrimination violates the norm of substantive equality which underpins the Court’s equality jurisprudence.

      "Substantive equality requires attention to the full context of the claimant group’s situation, to the actual impact of the law on that situation, and to the persistent systemic disadvantages that have operated to limit the opportunities available to that group’s members."

      It added: "At the heart of substantive equality is the recognition that identical or facially neutral treatment may frequently produce serious inequality. This is precisely what happens when seemingly neutral laws ignore the true characteristics of a group which act as headwinds to the enjoyment of society’s benefits."

      Francis pointed out that the white dominant group, on the whole, enjoys better health, better health care, better nutrition, and longer life spans.

      In addition, they're more likely to be able to protect themselves by working at home and ordering in food so as to be less exposed to the virus.

      "This is what systemic racism looks like," Francis said. 

      There's a two-step approach to determine if adverse-impact discrimination is occurring, according to the Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

      "At the first step, in order for a law to create a distinction based on prohibited grounds through its effects, it must have a disproportionate impact on members of a protected group," the decision noted. "A law, for example, may include seemingly neutral rules, restrictions or criteria that operate in practice as 'built‑in headwinds' for members of protected groups. In other cases, the problem is not 'headwinds' built into a law, but the absence of accommodation for members of protected groups."

      UBC has decided to maintain a mask mandate because employers are allowed to do this at their discretion.

      Francis said that school boards should do the same thing to protect the human rights of students, many of whom are either immune-compromised or have immune-compromised family members in their households.

      "The thing that is missing from this whole thing is the recognition that minority rights depend on governments for protection," Francis said.

      The Straight emailed all nine elected Vancouver school trustees on March 11 to ask if they will bring forward a motion to call for a mask mandate in local schools. As of this writing, none of the trustees has replied to this question.

      "So the question I have now is what are the mitigating measures or are these people completely abandoned in the school system?" Francis asked. "So what are trustees doing? What are universities doing? What are all these other institutions doing?"