In her Public Health and Society class, Chrisnovick Tshilanda-Kalenga discovered a disturbing trend that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Brock University Health Sciences undergraduate student learned that Black, Indigenous and Arab Peoples had a relatively low uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine compared to Asian and white groups.
She was eager to know why.
“I felt a mixture of concern and curiosity,” says Tshilanda-Kalenga. “I found myself anxious, considering the governmental restrictions and measures tied to vaccination for accessing various services and locations.
“This led me to ponder how these communities navigated the pandemic and the substantial influence it had on their daily lives and financial situations,” she says.
After class, she approached Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Asif Khowaja, who teaches HLSC 2P98.
“We talked about how inequities in the health-care system are challenging for Black communities and other marginalized populations,” says Khowaja, whose course examines the history, structure and core principles of the Canadian health-care system and the political and social forces shaping it.
When Khowaja saw an announcement for federal funding through the Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA), he thought it may be a good opportunity for Tshilanda-Kalenga to explore this research, he says.
While the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada has run its USRA program for years, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) are offering USRAs for the first time in 2023. SSHRC and CIHR have earmarked their awards for undergraduate students who self-identify as being Black.
Tshilanda-Kalenga jumped at the chance to research the question of not only why the vaccine uptake was relatively low among Black populations in Ontario, but also how this discrepancy impacted Black people economically.
In her study, she is comparing the economic loses and gains of Black Ontarians who received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine with a group who were not vaccinated.
Economic outcomes include job gain, loss or reduction in working hours, business expansion or closure, gains or losses in investments, workplace promotion, resignation and if vaccination status prevented people from getting a job during the pandemic.
Tshilanda-Kalenga designed an online survey for research participants asking questions on a range of topics including age, employment status during COVID-19, vaccination status, access to vaccines and government supports received during the pandemic, among others. She also conducted one-on-one interviews with participants.
Tshilanda-Kalenga is now wrapping up the survey, interviews and journaling, and will soon begin analyzing the information she gathered and submit a final report during the Fall Term.
“This research is meant to understand why there were low vaccine rates among Black people and how this affected them economically so that we can create effective policy interventions for future health-care campaigns,” she says.
According to Canadian government statistics, vaccination coverage for at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine was lower among people who self-identify as off-reserve First Nation (81 per cent), Black (82 per cent) or Arab (85 per cent) compared to South Asian people (96 per cent) and white people (93 per cent).
Khowaja says the USRA was an opportunity for Tshilanda-Kalenga to learn surveying, interviewing, data collection, data analysis and other valuable research skills on a topic he calls “the elephant in the room that people knew, but nobody was talking about.”
“Our students have so much potential,” he says. “We can engage enthusiastic students like Chris in the research process to train them to be future leaders in health care. I encourage professors to bring any research opportunity, whether it is funded or not funded, to their students.”
For Tshilanda-Kalenga, the experience goes beyond professional development.
“It is an honour for me as a Black person to be able to conduct research I know will be beneficial to people who are like me, to my community,” she says.