Friday, May 8, 2020

More Data Needed to Address Negative Impact of COVID-19 on Racial Minorities

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on racial disparities in health care. Demographic data collected by the states indicate that people who belong to racial minorities are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 virus. However, to gain a complete understanding of how vulnerability is distributed, it is vital to consider the data in the context of socioeconomic status and other factors that may affect risk, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Disparity figures without explanatory context can perpetuate harmful myths and misunderstandings that actually undermine the goal of eliminating health inequities,” wrote Merlin Chowkwanyun, Ph.D., M.P.H., of Columbia University and Adolph L. Reed Jr., Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania. “Such clarifying perspective is required not just for COVID-19 but also for future epidemics.”

Chowkwanyun and Reed highlighted four potential pitfalls of considering data on racial disparities without context:

  • First, it can foster biologic explanations for racial health disparities. “Such explanations posit that congenital qualities unique to specific racial minorities predispose them to higher rates of a particular disease,” they wrote.
  • Second, it can promote explanations grounded in racial stereotypes of behavior. The authors cited examples of this phenomenon wherein black, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican Americans at the turn of the 20th century were depicted as having poor hygiene and engaging in vices that made them more susceptible to contracting disease.
  • Third, placing too much of a focus on location when interpreting the data can reinforce “territorial stigmatization,” wherein neighborhoods that lack resources are regarded as composed of people who are poor, members of racial minorities, and/or from other countries. “In the case of COVID-19, place-based stigma might be further amplified by association with sickness and could in turn lead to blaming of local residents’ allegedly deviant behavior, repressive forms of surveillance, calls for demolition, or simply neglect by a society that wishes to distance itself from such areas,” the authors wrote.
  • Fourth, taken together, these potential pitfalls may feed the perception that certain social problems are mainly “racial” and matter only to people in minority groups, a perception that has been used in the past to justify neglect and funding cuts.

The authors wrote that data on socioeconomic status should be collected or otherwise accounted for along with racial data.

“Complementary SES [socioeconomic status] information will clarify how racial and class forces are intertwined—and when they are not—in the case of COVID-19,” they wrote. “By highlighting connections between racial disparities and upstream forces such as economic inequality, which carry widespread societal consequences, we can also guard against future cynical—and dangerous—political attempts to frame COVID-19 as largely a problem of minorities.”

(Image: iStock/AndreyPopov)

Now in Psychiatric News

Psychiatric News continues to report on what the COVID-19 pandemic means for psychiatrists and the patients they serve. We will highlight these articles for you as they become available online:

COVID-19 and People With SMI: New Notes From the Field

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