That COVID-19 disproportionally affects minorities should come as no surprise to anyone. Those populations are disadvantaged in a number of ways ranging from income to health to political representation. Why should the results of a pandemic be any different? In fact, if anything, COVID-19 throws these disparities into stark relief.
Here’s a CNN story:
Nationally, African Americans have accounted for roughly 20% of deaths from Covid-19, although black people make up about 13% of the US population, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A study out this week brought even more chilling news: Counties with higher black populations account for almost 60% of Covid-19 deaths.
An array of factors likely contributes to those mortality rates. African Americans in the United States are more likely to have the chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension that are risk factors for Covid-19 complications. They are almost twice as likely as white residents to be uninsured. And black workers are less likely than their white and Asian counterparts to be employed in jobs that allow work from home, reducing risk of exposure to the virus.The people in power don’t look like the people hit hardest by COVID-19
If we’re going to do something about this or any other issue that impacts a certain group, having good demographic data is crucial. If the Latino community in Oregon is being hit hard by COVID-19 (they are), it’s one thing to guess at it and it’s another to know it.
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) is responsible for publishing this data in Oregon. Their Oregon Coronavirus Update email of May 5, 2020 highlights a lot of what I find detestable about their work.
First, they’ve finally decided to report cases by ZIP code. Yay! But not completely. If the ZIP code’s population is less than 1,000 people, they’re going to “combine ZIP codes and report the aggregate case count.” Further, “if there are fewer than 10 cases in a ZIP code, then we will be reporting ‘1-9.'” Literally, OHA has one job here: report the aggregate case data accurately. And OHA refuses to do it under the guise of patient privacy. It’s crazy-making.
OHA follows this up with this: “The goal of releasing the data is to help people better understand the extent of community-based spread of the virus.” This is a remarkable sentence given that they’ve just said how they will be thwarting their own goal.
OHA: “We are committed to being transparent and accountable to all the communities we serve, especially those hardest hit by the pandemic.” We have no evidenceâ€”none whatsoeverâ€”that “transparency” is OHA’s reflexive response to anything. To the contrary, news reporters have had to beg, cajole, threaten, shame, and file Freedom of Information Act requests. OHA saying they’re “committed to being transparent” is at best an example of astounding self-deception. Others would call it a lie.
Just getting Marion County data from OHA took all kinds of work by reporters. When we finally got the data, it turned out that most cases were concentrated in Woodburn and Gervais, two places with high Latino representation. Did OHA hide this data because they feared some kind of backlash against the Latino community? Based on what I’ve seen from OHA, I would say, “Absolutely.” Unfortunately, that means that peopleâ€”Latinos, Anglos, whoeverâ€”in Woodburn and Gervais had no idea there was a large number of cases in their communities.
I am also confident that the OHA thinks what they’re doing is right. Here’s their justification:
OHA wants to acknowledge the degree to which data, particularly by zip code, may contribute to or reinforce stigma and discrimination in communities of color and underserved neighborhoods.Oregon Coronavirus Update email of May 5, 2020
This viewpoint is both incredibly patronizing and condescending. “Data” doesn’t do anything. Bigots will be bigots regardless of data. Racists will cherry-pick data to “prove” their point no matter what the data says, because data can be sliced and diced a myriad of ways. OHA’s job, again, is to accurately report data. Want to help marginalized communities? Accurately report the data about them! This idea that the general public somehow can’t handle the truth is infuriating, and it literally runs the risk of killing people.
The email continues:
OHAâ€™s Health Equity definition states, â€œAchieving health equity requires the ongoing collaboration of all regions and sectors of the state, including tribal governments to address: (1) The equitable distribution or redistribution of resources and power; and (2) Recognizing, reconciling, and rectifying historical and contemporary injustices.â€
Inequities in OHAâ€™s data are likely to reflect the inequitable distribution of power and resources among Oregon communities. OHA believes by sharing this data, we can identify and continue conversations with affected communities for how to redistribute resources and power to rectify injustice. We are committed to helping the public better understand â€œwhyâ€ the impact of the disease is shouldered more by certain communities.Oregon Coronavirus Update email of May 5, 2020
There’s a philosophical argument about the role of government buried in here (namely, that a government’s role should be to help provide equality of opportunity not the impossible mission outcome equality), but setting that aside, the only way the OHA can fulfill their own mandate as they’ve defined it is to give the public accurate COVID-19 data. Once again, they’re failing.