Jason Kenney’s racist and dangerous scapegoating of the South Asian community only serves to distract Albertans from his incompetence

With record breaking COVID-19 cases and no way to blame Trudeau and Notley, Jason Kenney has decided to scapegoat the northeast Calgary South Asian community for his own incompetence. 

Photo via Government of Alberta

Jason Kenney appeared on a popular South Asian radio show Red FM 106.7 to be “blunt” and give the South Asian community a “wake up call” to curb COVID-19 cases. He made a dangerous assumption that our tight knit community and multigenerational households are the cause for a high number of cases with no evidence to back it up. 

I am not furious at the Premier for pointing out there are a higher number of cases within our community, what I am furious about is Kenney blaming our culture of hospitality rather than inherent economic inequities and class realities that are driving infections. His statement is racist and dangerous. It stigmatizes South Asians and invites wider community backlash towards us.

The premier is failing Albertans. We do not know the source of over 85% of current COVID-19 cases. Contact tracing has completely collapsed in this province. We have the highest number of active cases in Canada, more than Ontario or Quebec. We are the only province without a mask mandate. We do not have access to the federal COVID-19 tracing app because Kenney does not want to use the “Trudeau App, as one of his lieutenants described it. Alberta’s own app has only traced 20 cases. And for god's sake, we are rationing off oxygen in Calgary hospitals now. 

On top of that, there are hundreds of white people violating health orders and gathering in downtown Calgary to protest masks. Kenney lets their reckless actions slide to score political points with his base but wants to single out the hardworking people of northeast Calgary.

Studies in Ontario show that case rates are correlated to visible minority status and recent immigration. However, once adjusted for housing density and working conditions, those socioeconomic factors are the key drivers of infections, not race or culture. The op-ed the Premier has referred to highlights the same sentiments but he is choosing to cherry pick parts of it to serve his purpose. Alberta was not even collecting race data until recently and no racial data has been made public. He has no evidence to back up his racist claims. 

South Asians are more prone to cases because we do not have the privilege of working from home or have access to sick pay. A significant portion of northeast Calgary residents are essential frontline workers. We are truck drivers that make sure the shelves at your local grocery store are stocked. We are taxi drivers who come in contact with hundreds of people daily and risk our lives to make sure you can get to your doctor appointment safely. We are the health care aides taking care of your sick grandparents in continuing care centres. When you click a button on your phone, we are the ones that bring you your Skip the Dishes meal or shop for you so you can conveniently pick up your groceries at the curbside. We are working multiple jobs, taking public transit, risking our lives and running this economy.

There is no doubt that my community is tight knit but that does not mean we are spreading COVID to each other. It means we are taking care of each other with mutual aid, checking up on each other and making curbside food deliveries. My family celebrated a full month of Ramadan and two Eid Celebrations without any gatherings. My friends celebrated Diwali, Navratri and Gurpurab in their bubbles. We have been doing our part. We have sacrificed a lot in this pandemic. 

Across the country, people are pointing to multigenerational homes as a problem for COVID-19. My grandma lives with me. What would the Premier have me do? Send her to a long term continuing care centre where there are outbreaks every other day due to his own failures? Living in a multi-generational home keeps me vigilant because I do not want to risk my grandma’s health. If she wasn’t living with us I wouldn’t be nearly as careful as I am. It puts my family at peace knowing she is safe with us. 

The premier knows systemic factors like precarious employment put racialized folks at a higher risk but he just does not care. This was not a slip of a tongue or a well meaning statement that just backfired. This is a strategy. He wants to deflect blame onto individuals so his government does not have to take responsibility for their utter failure. When the Cargill outbreak took place in the spring, he blamed temporary foreign workers for living together in large numbers rather than addressing the conditions in their workplace. The Filipino community had to deal with the backlash. Now it’s the South Asian community. It’ll be another community in a few months. This is just how he operates. This is who he is: an incompetent and racist leader.

Haiqa Cheema is a Pakistani-Canadian community organizer in Alberta. She holds a Masters of Public Policy from University of Calgary and serves as a political consultant to Muslim and South Asian community organizations.