In May, President Joe Biden announced that COVID-19 cases were down in all 50 states for the first time since the start of the pandemic. For many Americans, this is welcome news, as the easing of mask mandates, reopening of public spaces and slow return of gatherings paints an optimistic picture following a year of incomprehensible loss.
However, as some anticipate a return to the way things were, many still grapple with rebuilding their lives following a pandemic that devastated their communities with loss of human life and economic hardship.
The road to collective recovery put forward by our officials seems relatively straightforward, though logistically challenging: make vaccines readily available, especially in hard-hit communities, and ensure the communities are equitably supported from the crippling economic impact of the crisis. However, the looming question underlying our recovery is: How can we identify who needs what help without the data to show us the way?
It’s true, we don’t know who needs the help. The difficulty we face is rooted in the reality that even the experts do not have or understand the data that would tell us who needs the help most. Solving that problem is how we recover faster and sustainably.
We must democratize our data, through broader collection and deeper disaggregation.
Americans of color have borne the brunt of inequitable data collection and use for centuries and the availability of demographic information throughout the pandemic has been insufficient. This historical truth re-emerged as recently as the 2020 census, as experts are particularly concerned about undercounted Hispanic residents.
While experts know broadly that communities of color suffered disproportionately when it came to number of cases and number of deaths due to COVID-19, they haven’t been collecting sufficiently wide or deep disaggregated data to show how individual racial groups have suffered or where exactly they are located. Our data collection and research apparatus are pointing their fingers in the dark.
The data void has continued during the vaccination process. While over 40 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated, the lack of quality information about vaccine distribution and availability continues to hamstring communities of color. As of April 26, the race and ethnicity of those who received at least one shot was recorded only 55 percent of the time. Of that group, 64 percent were white. The need for disaggregated data is ever more urgent for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiian populations, which was highlighted by Biden’s executive order issued earlier this year.
How can the public reasonably expect the government, our health care systems and experts to lead us safely out of the pandemic without accurate data on what must be done, where and for whom?
Democratize our data.
The challenge of accurately diagnosing which areas require the most relief and vaccine focus is twofold: First, we must address the underreporting of certain racial groups when collecting data. Second, we must standardize our data collection effort across government agencies, including how we categorize demographic data. Incompleteness and lagging uniformity exacerbate a vicious cycle that directs resources inaccurately, driving up resource needs in certain communities, and foments distrust. We have an opportunity now to stop the cycle.
As part of its January executive order on racial equity, the White House established an Equitable Data Working Group, with the goal of adopting more equitable data practices to accurately identify and serve our nation’s diverse communities and deliver on its equity goals. This is a positive first step that we applaud and wish to amplify. We also urge the working group to take urgent and tangible steps toward data collection completeness and uniformity. This includes standardizing definitions of race and ethnicity, engaging communities with the most need with intentional precision, and maintaining transparency throughout the process.
Across the country, people are ready to leave the pandemic behind. While bringing much-needed relief to communities whose recovery is slowest, we can also end the cycle of systemic inequality by democratizing our data collection and understanding. Establishing the Equitable Data Working Group was an important step toward resolving inequalities not just during the pandemic, but beyond it as well. Now, we need a path forward.
The road to recovery from COVID-19 will continue long after every adult is vaccinated. If the Biden administration is serious about fostering a successful and equitable rebound from the virus, an accurate data-driven response is the way to do that.
Juliet K. Choi is the president and chief executive officer of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum. Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League. Both groups are part of the Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative.
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