TORONTO -- Research indicates that non-white people are at a higher risk of being infected with COVID-19, likely because of social and economic barriers.

Black people in particular are twice as likely to develop a case of the virus compared to white people. As well, people of Asian ethnicity are 1.5 times more likely to contract the virus.

“In our society race is correlated with wealth, and wealth is correlated with behaviour, and behaviour is correlated with exposure,” Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday. “People who are non-white tend to be poor, and poor people tend to have jobs in which they can’t socially distance, they tend to have to use public transit where there’s a lot of exposures.”

According to a report by the Canadian Medical Association, 85 per cent of our risk of illness is linked to social determinants such as income, housing, education, systemic racism and access to health care, while only 15 per cent is linked to biology.

“Hundreds of research papers have confirmed that people in the lowest socio-economic groups carry the greatest burden of illness,” the report says.

Data from Statistics Canada revealed in October that in communities where 25 per cent or more of the population is considered a visible minority, there was a mortality rate of 34.5 in 100,000, compared to only 12.7 per cent in communities where less than 10 per cent of the population is a visible minority. 

“With COVID we know that if you have hypertension, diabetes or obesity you’re much more likely to be hospitalized or die,” Deonandan said. “And who are these people? They are the poor people because their diet is not as good, or their work doesn’t allow them the time to take care of themselves, or child care gets in the way.”

He added, “All these things accumulate, so there isn’t one direct path to a bad outcome; it's a number of factors all of which are somewhat related in some way to socio-economic status.”

A number of high-profile racist incidents and damning reports of systemic racism involving non-white patients have deepened mistrust in health-care services for some in Black, Indigenous and communities of colour.

Part of this mistrust has also led to vaccine hesitancy – defined by the World Health Organization as people who purposely delay receiving available vaccines.

To get ahead of this, health experts are urging public health officials to improve messaging to specific groups to better inform them of the safety and necessity of vaccination.

In a statement released by Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company said approximately 42 per cent of their global clinical trial participants and 30 per cent of U.S. participants have racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. Biotech firm Moderna – whose COVID-19 vaccine also received Health Canada approval – says that 37 per cent of their U.S. clinical trial participants are from communities of colour.

When asked whether there was any reason to be concerned that vaccines will be less effective in people of certain ethnicities, Deonandan said that pharmaceutical companies are not tailoring the ingredients in vaccines based on race, however they are making sure that there is greater diversity in clinical trials to ensure that vaccines work on a wide array of people.