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The Founding College of the University of Toronto

Public Health and Migration: An Emerging Interest at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health

Health Studies

By Deirdre Kelly-Adams

Over the past year, COVID-19’s transmission patterns have closely followed pre- existing lines of discrimination in Canada, and research has shown that temporary migrant workers, refugees and other im/migrants have been particularly hard hit by the virus, largely as a result of the overcrowded and exploitative living and working conditions they endure here. Has the COVID-19 pandemic revealed these stark structural inequities to us? Dr. Andrea Cortinois, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, cross appointed to the Human Biology Program in the Faculty of Arts and Science and to the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH), believes that we should challenge this idea, as it implies that before the pandemic, these conditions were invisible and thus could not have been prevented or acted upon.

Dr. Cortinois is a leading voice in issues of migration and health at the University of Toronto. His work focuses on migration as a global determinant of health, and the impact that the global economic regime and the planetary ecological crisis have on migration and displacement. Dr. Cortinois believes that the pandemic has certainly highlighted fundamental local and global inequities that disproportionately impact migrants, however, his current work interrogates the notion that the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated these inequities, or made them visible to us. He affirms that it has long been known that global economic mechanisms produce poverty and vulnerability in the ‘Global South’, in turn promoting displacement. Prior to the pandemic, we knew that conditions in overcrowded refugee camps were unsanitary and dangerous, and that borders selectively protect certain population groups while endangering others, often along citizenship and racial lines. Canada, like most other western countries, has long exploited the labour of temporary migrant workers.

Two other prominent scholars in the field of migration and health, Dr. Heide Castañeda and Dr. Miriam Orcutt, believe, like Dr. Cortinois, that the current pandemic has indeed called attention to many long standing issues. Dr. Castañeda is a professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Her research interests include political, legal and medical anthropology, migrant health, borders, citizenship and policing. She asserts that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that borders selectively open and close to migrants, but that “the closing of borders, not just in the wake of pandemics…has a very long history in many countries around the globe”.

Dr. Orcutt is a senior research fellow in global public health and forced migration at the Institute for Global Health at University College London, and executive director of Lancet Migration’s global collaboration to advance migration health. Her work focuses on global health policy and governance, health system and medical humanitarian resilience and response, forced migration, and structural and political determinants of health. According to Dr. Orcutt, the pandemic’s impact on migrant populations exists within broader global structures and failing systems: “What we had already seen before COVID-19 was a weakened international system, a retreat on global commitments, and a reduction in global refugee protection”.

Both Dr. Castañeda and Dr. Orcutt were keynote speakers at a public webinar held on March 2nd 2021, organized by the DLSPH’s Public Health and Migration area, in collaboration with the Centre for Global Health, and the Department of Family and Community Medicine. The Public Health and Migration area comprises several DLSPH faculty members working alongside Dr. Cortinois, including Dr. Denise Gastaldo, Dr. Vanessa Redditt, Dr. Roberta K. Timothy, and Dr. Anna Banerji. They hope to develop a public health and migration division within DLSPH, and their March 2nd webinar officially launched this initiative. The event drew 320 attendees from over 20 countries on 5 continents, demonstrating considerable interest across the globe. Dr. Steini Brown, DLSPH’s dean, has identified this initiative as an important one for a school of public health: “In response to growing interest by students and faculty, the School is working to strengthen public health and migration as an area of research and education.”

In her keynote address on March 2nd, Dr. Orcutt called for a paradigm shift in the field of migration and health, emphasizing the need for better engagement across academia, policy and practice. Dr. Castañeda expressed similar sentiments, making the case for a critical approach to migrant health. As COVID-19 continues to exacerbate the already vulnerable socioeconomic and health status of migrants, Dr. Cortinois is critical of the fact that it took a crisis of such magnitude to bring to the attention of the media and the public opinion, at least temporarily, these inequities, arguing that what is needed is not a more powerful magnifying lens, but the will to see and act. He believes that as an internationally recognized institution with a vision to increase health equity and achieve impact beyond academia, DLSPH has the capacity to promote a critical understanding of the links between migration and health.

Published: June 17th, 2021