MONTREAL -- Montreal North was more severely affected by COVID-19 than any other neighbourhood in the city, and is one of the hardest-hit communities in the country — and a new research study is trying to figure out why.

Led by the Association of Canadian Studies and the Université de Montréal (U de M), the study will survey 4,000 Montreal North residents and 4,000 residents from other Montreal boroughs over the course of a year.

Researchers hope to determine how community-level characteristics, in combination with individual behaviours, affect COVID-19 infection rates.

The aim is to help fill the gaps in our knowledge about why some communities are more adversely impacted by the pandemic than others, said Dr. Simona Bignami, an associate professor in the Department of Demography at U de M and one of the study’s lead investigators.

“There is, today, very limited evidence [...] about the mechanisms at the individual level that account for these vulnerabilities, and especially how characteristics and behaviour interact with the larger contextual characteristics to produce higher rates of COVID-19 infections,” she says.

One topic the survey will explore is vaccinations, asking subjects to specify why they chose to get vaccinated — or why they chose not to, explained Bignami. Montreal North currently has the lowest vaccination rates in Quebec.

The study will also collect blood samples from the participants to examine COVID-19 antibody levels. In doing so, researchers will be able to estimate levels of past COVID-19 infections in Montreal North — even in cases where symptoms were mild or undetectable. They will also be able to compare antibody levels produced through past-infections to those achieved through vaccination.

By combining antibody testing and household surveys, researchers will achieve a more holistic understanding of COVID-19’s impact in Montreal North, explained Dr. Jack Jedwab, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Studies and the study’s other lead investigator.

“What we’re trying to understand is, on the one hand, what people’s conditions [are] vis-a-vis their degree of antibodies relative to the contagion, and [we want to] see how that meshes with how people view the contagion and what type of actions they took in terms of public safety measures,” he explained.

EXAMINING THE EFFECTS OF RACE, POVERTY AND INEQUITY

Montreal North is one of the city’s most racially diverse neighbourhoods, and a significant portion of its inhabitants lives below the poverty line. These factors likely played a key role in the area’s disproportionately high infection rates, said Marjorie Villefranche, executive director of community centre La Maison d’Haiti, and other advocates like her. La Maison d’Haiti is one of several community groups working in partnership with the study.

“It’s the result of social inequity,” she said.

Many residents of Montreal North are frontline workers, typically working in environments such as grocery stores, factories, and hospitals, where they face more exposure to COVID-19 than those working from home. Further, many residents live in crowded apartments, often sharing bedrooms with other family members, making it easy for COVID-19 to spread from person to person.

“It’s a difficult situation. When the government asks everyone to stay home, to be safe — [some people] are not safe at home,” she said. “In a house with nothing and in a bedroom for months… it’s not possible.”

Although it’s too early to say for certain, both Bignami and Jedwab agree that socioeconomic factors have likely contributed to higher rates of contagion in Montreal North.

As far as Villefranche is concerned, the study will highlight what she has believed all along:

“It’s about the manifestation of poverty, the manifestation of racism,” she said. “If there’s research that proves it and we have data, we can push on the government to make some improvements.”

Residents of Montreal North and other areas of the city who are interested in participating in the research study can register online.

The study received $767,000 in funding through the federal government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF). The research will be conducted in partnership with the CIUSSS du Nord-de-l'Île-de-Montréal and a number of community groups in Montreal North.

- With files from CTV News Montreal's Angela Mackenzie