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COVID-19’s impact on Montréal’s poorest residents lays bare striking inequalities

Canadian PoliticsCOVID-19

Panorama of Montréal, taken from the top of Mount Royal. Photo by David Iliff/Flickr.

Québec premier François Legault often speaks of “two Québecs” in his near-daily press briefings on the COVID-19 crisis. The first Québec refers to the regions which, overall, have seen relatively few cases of the virus. The second Québec refers to the city of Montréal, now the epicenter of the pandemic in Canada.

To be sure, we should also speak of two Montréals: one that is home to the (predominantly white) middle- and upper-classes, and the other, to poverty-stricken neighbourhoods like Montréal-Nord, Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Ahuntsic-Cartierville, which are currently experiencing the worst of the crisis. Of the more than 20,000 cases in Montréal as of May 20, close to half are concentrated in lower-income and multicultural neighbourhoods.

As has been the case all over the world, COVID-19 has exacerbated profound social inequalities, affecting those for whom spatial distancing is largely impossible. It is not a strange paradox under capitalism that those deemed to be “essential workers” are also those who struggle the most to make ends meet. These underpaid workers are effectively endangered as they are forced in to workplaces where they may encounter the virus. Moreover, they must often contend with difficult sanitary conditions at home, as they typically live in densely populated areas where distancing is inherently challenging.

A patchwork of inequalities

These global trends are highly visible in Montréal. Though the city attributed the initial spread of the virus to families returning from March Break travel, the situation rapidly deteriorated in the severely under-resourced healthcare system, notably in the province’s Residental and Long-Term Care Centres (CHSLDs). Working conditions at these facilities have long been decried by healthcare staff, who receive low wages and face systematic understaffing.

Unsurprisingly, these precarious positions are most often occupied by immigrant workers who are in crucial need of employment when they arrive in Montréal. These workers also frequently use public transit to get to work and to commute between the different facilities they serve. As they are continuously exposed to others, including those infected by the virus, they are more likely to get sick. When these workers return home to close-quarters living conditions and often poorly maintained housing, the risk of spreading the virus in the community increases.

These communities—including Montréal-Nord, one of the poorest districts in Canada where the median income is just $23,412—are also geographically removed from downtown Montréal, where most COVID-19 designated facilities operate. This lack of accessibility makes widespread testing particularly difficult.

In an attempt to remedy this, the City recently converted public buses to be used as mobile testing centers in these poorer communities. Yet, only a handful of these vehicles have made it into circulation, meaning it is unlikely that they will accomplish mass testing in time to stop the potentially catastrophic spread of infection.

A glance at the city’s urban landscape presents the visible segregation that characterizes Montréal’s patchwork of boroughs and neighbourhoods. Indeed, these systemic and structural inequalities have been a fixture of the city for generations and have been steadily growing in recent decades.

The geographical class divide is clear when comparing the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths alongside household income levels between the wealthy Montréal-Ouest area with the poorer Montréal-Nord neighbourhood.

The area currently most affected by the virus is Montréal-Nord, a borough situated to the north-east, along the Rivière-des-prairies, and is home to mostly low-income workers and people of colour. Many inhabitants of Montréal-Nord are also healthcare workers; they represent nearly a quarter of those infected by COVID-19 in the area.

The catastrophe faced by residents in this neighbourhood also exemplifies the stark contrast which accompanies wealth-based segregation. The homes situated along the Rivière-des-prairies, on Boulevard Gouin, are large, spacious and often ostentatious displays of wealth, which pose a stark contrast to the high-rises and dilapidated dwellings that poorer residents inhabit only a few streets away. In these poorer areas of Montréal-Nord, access to necessities such as fresh food and medical care is often difficult, given the sparse number of services and the lack of public transit.

Montréal-Nord has historically been home to the city’s Haitian community and remains a diverse neighbourhood. As a result, it is also often the scene of police violence, as tragically demonstrated by the fatal shooting of teen Fredy Villaneuva in 2008. The murder of an unarmed teenager by police led to widespread protests in the city which later turned to riots. The shooting served to further erode trust between the community and city officials.

The low-income and multicultural communities of Côte-des-Neiges, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Riviere-Des-Prairies are also being hit with serious COVID-19 outbreaks. All of these areas feature many of the same socioeconomic characteristics as Montréal Nord.

In contrast, the wealthiest areas of Montréal not only benefit from their proximity to major healthcare centers, they are also areas where most people have the ability to work from home. In addition, these wealthier neighbourhoods are well connected to public transit and other services, and have access to large parks and outdoor recreation areas. As such, privileged communities have not only maintained control of their outbreaks, but also have the luxury of a more tolerable lockdown situation.

Looking ahead

Now that the pandemic has so blatantly accentuated social inequalities, putting those already suffering from the cruelties of contemporary capitalism at greater risk of contracting a potentially fatal virus, it is impossible to ignore the collective responsibility we all bear in permitting these inequalities to endure.

Those who share a common space inevitably become interdependent, even more so in a time of crisis. All Montréalers depend on the healthcare workers, grocers, and other essential members of our community, no matter where they happen to reside. Surely this should justify the kind of solidarity that would allow us to remedy some of the striking inequalities that plague the city.

To start, building access to public transit and essential care services for all communities would ensure equity and better health outcomes. The city should also adopt strict measures aimed at combating the housing crisis, which is slowly making the city unaffordable for all but wealthy dwellers, forcing newcomers and the poor into the cramped quarters that have contributed to the inequality of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

As Marxist geographer and economist David Harvey states, “to the city is not merely a right of access to what already exists, but a right to change it after our heart’s desire.”

Montréalers should desire a city free of inequality, where community ties and solidarity are strong and lasting. If nothing else, this would allow us to traverse the next crisis together, thereby avoiding the kind of tragedy we are experiencing today.

Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethELeier.


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