Examining the Effects of COVID-19 on Immigrants and Vulnerable Groups

Image Courtesy of Unsplashed.

James LeGallais, Queens University.


As COVID-19 cases surge across Canada from roughly 50,000 at the beginning of October to over 90,000 currently, there has been a corresponding increase in focus on public health precautions (Government of Canada 2020). While some Canadians have the ability to abide by these policies and recommendations, those who cannot work from home and/or work low wage jobs are more likely to be unable to abide by government health recommendations. Approximately 40% of individuals who have returned to work and are making less than $16 per hour are working without social distancing (Macdonald 2020).

 Immigrants make up 22% of those working these low wage jobs, compared to the 12% of low wage earners who are Canadian born (Zhang, Feng, and Picot 2020). Although the percentage gap between low-income immigrants and Canadian born citizens has slightly decreased since 2010, it represents a continuous trend which has existed since the 1980’s, where low income rates for immigrants were “1.4 times that of the Canadian-born … increasing further to about 2.7 by 2010” (Picot and Yuqian 2020). These statistics demonstrate the need to examine the effects of COVID-19 on immigrants who are most likely to be forced to return to work, and thus are at higher risk of exposure.

COVID-19 has impacted minority groups at higher rates in terms of mental health, financial strain, and mortality. A study conducted by Statistics Canada found that mortality rates were twice as high in Canadian neighbourhoods who reported to have 25% of their population designated as visible minorities in comparison to those who reported 1% (Subedi, Greenberg, and Turcotte 2020). Additionally, visible-minority groups were “more likely to report symptoms consistent with ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ generalized anxiety disorder” due to COVID-19 (30.0% vs. 24.2%) in comparison to their white counterparts (Moyser n.d.).

The wide ranging and disproportionate effects that immigrants face in regard to COVID-19 highlight the need for us as Canadians to address this issue of inequality. While some may argue that immigrants should not expect to receive high wages when first entering Canada, it has been found that as of 2012, 51% of immigrants working low income jobs were classified as chronically low income; chronic low income being defined as those who had been low-income for at least five consecutive years (although many had been there for much longer) (Picot and Yuqian 2020). The percentage of those at chronic low-income status remained relatively stable over the 2000’s, and did not improve in conjunction with time spent in Canada, with chronic low income rates remaining much higher for immigrants who had spent between 16 and 20 years in Canada compared to Canadian born citizens (Picot and Yuqian 2020).

This shocking trend of inequality should not go unaddressed. Efforts should be taken to correct this, not only for the injustice it is for these groups but because immigrants represent an “important contribution to Canada’s economy and society” (2018 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration 2018). Especially as the effects of COVID-19 continue to result in the closure of entire countries, which is likely to continue for the next several months at minimum, since it will take months to widely distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, even after trials are completed.

Since our border is likely to remain closed to countries that can’t afford to distribute the vaccine to their population, there may be a disproportionate affect on countries located in the global south. Although a global distribution effort has been established it is likely to take time to implement and major powers such as the US are missing from the domestic ratification of such agreements (Rauhala and Abutaleb 2020). This could adversely impact our immigrant population by denying them the ability to see family living in countries unable to distribute the vaccine. In 2015, six out of ten of the largest countries Canada received immigrants from were located in the global south, four of them being considered developing nations—which would likely need assistance distributing a vaccine (Kirby 2016). As such, there exists potential for immigrants to face long-term negative mental health effects resulting from the inability to see their family. This is in addition to the fact that Canada will likely be unable to admit large numbers of migrant workers due to the closure of our border.

Moreover, evidence indicates that the declining mental health of vulnerable groups will continue, as members of these groups have reported an increasing “frequency of harassment or attacks based on race, ethnicity or skin colour (18%) [which] was three times larger than the proportion among the rest of the population (6%) since the start of the COVID-19” (Perceptions of personal safety 2020). If left untreated, the impact these events have on minority group’s mental health have been proven to “imperil workers’ careers and companies’ productivity” (Mental health problems 2010). If migrant workers and members of vulnerable groups continue to be stuck in a chronic low income status, they will likely be unable to afford adequate mental health treatment.

As such, Canada’s inability to bring in large numbers of migrant workers, due to the continued closure of our border, will have long-term economic effects as the nation will have to continue to rely upon our current migrant population to support our economy. Thus, if the argument for equality has not convinced you, then the economic benefits alone of ensuring that our current migrant population (and members of vulnerable minority groups) can continue to effectively support our economy, should.



2018 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration. 2018. Government of Canada https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/publications-manuals/annual-report-parliament-immigration-2018/report.html (November 16, 2020).

Government of Canada. 2020. Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): Outbreak Update. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection.html#a1 (November 16, 2020).

Kirby, Jason. 2016. “The Changing Face of Canadian Immigration in One Chart.” Maclean’s. https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/the-changing-face-of-canadian-immigration-in-one-chart/ (November 16, 2020).

Knowles et al. 2020. “U.S. Shatters Case Record Again.” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/11/13/coronavirus-covid-live-updates-us/ (November 16, 2020).

Macdonald, David. 2020. “An Impossible Choice: At Least 540,000 Low Wage Workers Risk Losing CERB If They Refuse Unsafe Work – Behind the Numbers.” Behind the Numbers. https://behindthenumbers.ca/2020/05/06/an-impossible-choice/ (November 16, 2020).

“Mental Health Problems in the Workplace.” 2010. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/mental-health-problems-in-the-workplace (November 16, 2020).

Moyser, Melissa. Statistics Canada The Mental Health of Population Groups Designated as Visible Minorities in Canada during the COVID-19 Pandemic. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00077-eng.htm (November 16, 2020).

Perceptions of Personal Safety among Population Groups Designated as Visible Minorities in Canada during the COVID-19 Pandemic. 2020. Statistics Canada https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00046-eng.htm (November 16, 2020).

Picot, Garnett, and Lu Yuqian. 2020. Statistics Canada Chronic Low Income Among Immigrants in Canada and Its Communities. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11f0019m/11f0019m2017397-eng.htm (November 16, 2020).

Rauhala, Emily, and Yasmeen Abutaleb. 2020. “U.S. Says It Won’t Join WHO-Linked Effort to Develop, Distribute Coronavirus Vaccine.” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/coronavirus-vaccine-trump/2020/09/01/b44b42be-e965-11ea-bf44-0d31c85838a5_story.html (November 16, 2020).

Subedi, Rajendra, Lawson Greenberg, and Martin Turcotte. 2020. “COVID-19 Mortality Rates in Canada’s Ethno-Cultural Neighbourhoods.” Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00079-eng.htm (November 16, 2020).

Zhang, Jue, Hou Feng, and Garnett Picot. 2020. Statistics Canada Transitions into and out of Employment by Immigrants during the COVID-19 Lockdown and Recovery. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00070-eng.htm (November 16, 2020).

Image retrieved from Unsplashed. https://unsplash.com/photos/8hHxO3iYuU0?fbclid=IwAR02F-4GNrtMJwC14_mTiH4ZFbMHvD8M3A_d9MFk_kEP1UA2l_273Glb1B4