Black Scientists’ Task Force recommends mandated sick leave for Black workers


By Lincoln DePradine

Dr Akwatu Khenti

The Coronavirus pandemic exposed the vulnerability and inadequate provision of services to Black Torontonians and a new report now recommends corrective measures, including provincially mandated “sick days’’ for workers.

“Many Black workers cannot afford to miss a paycheque,’’ said Dr Akwatu Khenti, chair of the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity. “Ten sick days are crucial to Black workers, who have been reluctant to get tested even when they thought they had COVID, because they can’t afford to miss a paycheque,’’ he told The Caribbean Camera.

“We also asked the province to support Black mental health programs across municipal jurisdictions in the province, and to provide a consistent supply of vaccines to Black communities.’’

The task force was set up by the City of Toronto with a mandate that included developing “public health recommendations to address Black community concerns’’ about COVID-19 vaccines.

Task force members embarked on their assignment in February with the first of series of town hall meetings. Altogether, they hosted 18 virtual town halls with a total of 4,950 people in attendance.

On Monday, the task force presented the final report to Toronto’s Board of Health.

The health board, chaired by Councillor Joe Cressy, unanimously accepted all the report’s recommendations.

“The recommendations in this report speak to the depth of the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has on Toronto’s Black residents, and the need for action from all three levels of government on addressing discrimination in health services, and increasing investment and supports for Black communities,’’ said Cressy.

“I want to thank the task force members for their relentless and incredible work. As the chair of Toronto Board of Health, I am committed to doing everything — absolutely everything — to ensure all levels of government implement the task force’s recommendations.’’

Khenti, a university professor with a PhD in health and policy equity, said the task force “exceeded expectations. You couldn’t ask for more’’.

Among recommendations to the province, Khenti highlighted the need to vaccinate Black community members as a matter of priority; and extending – for at least two years after the end of the pandemic – the socio-economic support that the city has afforded some people in the aftermath of the outbreak of COVID-19 and the accompanying economic lockdown.

 “You don’t want – as soon as the pandemic is over – people are thrust over the socio-economic precipice,’’ Khenti explained.

“We also recommended that the city develops a Black mental health strategy because of the huge risks that Black people face because of the higher COVID burden that they have borne. Race-based data should also continue to be collected and used to assess the disparities and the strategies to be developed to reduce those disparities.’’

At the federal level, the government established COVID-assistance programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), providing financial support to Canadians directly affected by the pandemic.

“We ask the federal government to transform the CERB into a universal minimum basic income for all Canadians,’’ Khenti said.

Statistics has shown that just one percent of people in the Caribbean and Africa are vaccinated against COVID-19, and that 75 percent of all vaccines have gone to 10 countries worldwide.

The task force responded to this situation, Khenti said, by calling on the Canadian government to make “an immediate commitment to share 15 percent of surplus vaccines with Caribbean and African countries’’.

The task force’s recommendations will be presented to Toronto City Council at meetings scheduled for July 14 and 15.