Economic vulnerability

Kate Choi
Western University

Where we live has an impact on our well-being

How Canada’s neighbourhoods affect the spread of COVID-19

The neighbourhoods we live in shape our well-being—and that’s been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. SSHRC-funded researcher Kate H. Choi, Director of the Centre for Research on Social Inequality at Western University, is examining how the physical environment contributed to the unequal spread of COVID-19 and why low-income neighbourhoods have been hit harder by the disease.

To explore this issue, Choi and her team combine “traditional” data sources such as census data with “big data” such as neighbourhood-level COVID-19 infection rates and walkability scores. In doing so, she aims to answer three questions: Who lives in less desirable neighbourhoods with limited or poor-quality amenities? What’s the impact of not having access to adequate or affordable housing? And how do a neighbourhood’s sociodemographic traits affect well-being?

The need for tailored pandemic policies

It’s no secret that COVID-19 spreads faster in neighborhoods with high population densities. Less known is that population density affects the spread of the disease differently in low- and high-income neighborhoods. Choi and her team found that COVID-19 spread at a much slower pace in highly dense high-income neighborhoods when compared to similarly dense low-income neighborhoods in Toronto. This is likely because the highly dense high-income neighborhoods have larger shares of luxury condos, which have better ventilation, more nearby amenities and more resources for disinfection.

Based on findings like this, Choi says there is a need for resources to be deployed in a more purposeful way. This could lead to more effective pandemic responses in low-income communities that tend to have higher shares of racialized and immigrant residents.

“We can no longer develop one-size-fits-all policies,” she says. “Instead, we need to formulate tailored policy solutions that consider the resources available to residents of different neighborhoods.”

Learn more about Kate Choi’s research in her article in The Conversation.

Hashmat Khan
Carleton University

Modelling human behaviour to forecast pandemics

Using both epidemiology and economics data to better predict future waves of COVID-19

COVID-19 isn’t just a public health crisis. It also has a huge impact on Canada’s economy—so relying on epidemiological information alone can’t provide a complete picture of the pandemic. Hashmat Khan, Co-Director of the Centre for Monetary and Financial Economics at Carleton University, is developing new modelling tools that jointly examine public health actions and the economic activity associated with individual behaviour to make stronger, earlier predictions of how pandemics evolve.

How can individual behaviour forecast a pandemic? Khan notes that in late February and early March 2020, restaurant reservations in Toronto began to plummet, well before the public health emergency was declared and lockdowns began. People were clearly changing their behaviour, with a noticeable impact on the economy—a sign of what was soon to come with the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A correct prediction

In collaboration with the Bank of Canada as well as researchers in Spain and Montreal, Khan is building a macro-economic model that can study economic and public health policies in one unified framework. By accounting for both kinds of data, his model correctly predicted the second wave of the pandemic. As the pandemic evolved, Khan adjusted the model for new parameters related to remote work, vaccine availability, testing capacity, mask mandates and the expansion of social activity as the economy reopened.

As a project partner, the Bank of Canada plans to use the model in its own internal discussions and modelling activities. Khan also hopes his model will help policy-makers think differently about future waves of COVID-19.

“Unless we stamp it out early, it’s almost impossible to prevent the next wave,” says Khan. “Early detection and quick actions from individuals and the public are really the only way to flatten the curve.”

Visit Hashmat Khan’s page on the Carleton University website to learn more about his research.

Lesley Frank
Acadia University

Babies at risk of going hungry in Canada

How food insecurity affects the youngest Canadians

Are infants under two years old at higher risk of food insecurity? That’s the question Lesley Frank, Canada Research Chair for Food, Health and Social Justice at Acadia University, strives to answer. She wants to paint a broader picture of what food insecurity looks like in early childhood and the systemic factors affecting the ability of mothers to feed their babies.

Because food insecurity is linked to many other issues, such as housing and income, Frank works with researchers across several fields, including sociology, nutrition, economics and gender studies. Her research also spans a broad range of topics. In one study, she mapped out the “informal exchange economy” for infant foods by analyzing the ads placed by people buying, selling, trading and gifting these products online. She has also done economic research comparing different scenarios low-income families with babies may face against the costs needed to properly meet their nutrition needs, based on real-world food prices.

Low-income families are struggling

Through her research, Frank has found that some low-income families cannot afford basic nutritious diets for their babies, regardless of whether the babies are breast-fed or formula-fed. She also learned that while some mothers breastfeed because they can’t afford formula, others water down formula to make it last longer. In addition, formula is one of the most stolen food products in Canada and it’s hard to find in food banks—and some mothers worry about the quality of their breast milk because they themselves don't have sufficiently nutritious diets.

“Infant food insecurity is inexcusable,” Frank says. “The solutions lie in creating the economic and social conditions necessary for optimal infant feeding, such as ensuring families have access to adequate parental leave and other income supports.”

Learn more about Lesley Frank’s work in the trailer for her book, Out of Milk.

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