As professors across Canada have been handing out syllabi and giving their first lectures of this school year, Professor Roberta Timothy has her eyes firmly set on next September, when the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto will welcome the first cohort into the two-year Master of Public Health in Black Health programme.
In addition to the regular public health curriculum, the 10 to 15 students will follow a programme that includes six courses devoted to black public health, including ones on the socio-historical context of black health, chronic diseases and reproductive health and decolonising theory and method.
“A masters in public health in the field of black health is needed,” says Timothy, who proposed the programme in 2021, “because of how the experience of anti-black racism impacts black health. There’s a correlation between what I call ‘anti-black violence’ and black health outcomes.
“If we’re looking at factors such as higher diabetes rates, higher cancer rates, higher HIV rates and who has been impacted by COVID more, we see there’s a direct correlation with health outcomes and anti-black racism and violence.”
The fight for race-based data
In designing the programme, Timothy has, in large measure, drawn on her 30 years of being a public health practitioner because unlike, for example, the United States, Canada does not routinely collect race-based medical data.
“There are only two million of us, and most of us are located in Toronto, Montreal with smaller populations in Alberta. There’s this kind of notion that we don’t exist.
“We are a smaller population, we are absorbed,” Timothy told University World News, nodding to the fact that blacks account for only 3.5% of the Canadian population, while in the US blacks account for 13.4% and in states like Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia blacks account for more than 30% of the population. “We’ve been fighting to get raced-based data,” Timothy says.
After we spoke, she e-mailed me an April 2020 letter sent to the Ontario government that called for the collection of socio-economic and race-based health data.
A total of 192 community-based health and advocacy groups and 1,612 individuals signed the letter, which underscored that “Ontario, like other provinces and territories in Canada, continues to deal with the ongoing legacies of colonisation, structural inequality and systemic racism. Responding to COVID-19 with the expectation that all people will experience the pandemic in the same way hurts the already marginalised people and communities.”
When I asked how health outcomes for blacks, who, as in the US and the United Kingdom, are disproportionately poor, differ from poor whites, Timothy noted that there is evidence that shows that in terms of HIV the black community is more impacted.
Further, she pointed to a 2015 study and one she has been working on dealing with COVID rates for two years. The 2015 study showed that in Montreal the maternal morbidity of blacks was three to four times higher than it was for whites. (Because of Canada’s universal medical system, this difference cannot be attributed to lack of access to medical care.)