As the novel coronavirus spreads across the United States, researchers are finding vast racial disparities in deaths from COVID-19. The economic fallout from the crisis is also threatening to push already marginalized Americans further into poverty and instability. 

In an April 24 Policy Forum Live Session, Dr. Jane Ebot-Bish, a trained demographer and Senior Implementation Advisor at the Center for Government Excellence, argued that the unequal burden of this pandemic brings to light the need for local governments to accurately measure and disaggregate data by race.

Below is a summary of the question and answer session, with contributions from GovEx Senior Advisor Tiffany Davis.


Why is equity a critical topic for the COVID-19 response?

The discussion of the importance of having an equity framework in our work, always but especially during the times of COVID-19, needs to be placed squarely in the realm of human interaction. The way service providers perceive the care needed and the care they provide, and the way clients perceive the care they need and are given, depend on complex, socially and culturally constructed needs and expectations. Care and the quality of care through any service delivery channel is influenced by complex social determinants, one of which is race and ethnicity. 

It is no secret that racial discrimination not only has significant impacts on immediate access to quality services but also has long term negative outcomes through life. Many of these negative outcomes are avoidable! For many racial/ethnic groups that have already been living on the margins, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to push them even further into positions of instability and poverty that we have not seen in generations. For example, though Black Americans represent only approximately 13 percent of the population in states reporting racial/ethnic data, they account for about 34 percent of total COVID-19 deaths in those states. This is avoidable and we have to pay attention to it. Working within an equity framework and using relevant racial/ethnic data can allow local policymakers to identify which groups in their cities need additional access to resources and services. 


Why is measuring racial disparities important? Isn’t it more important to focus on solving the problem, rather than quantifying it?

We recognize that for all of us, our experiences and the access we have depend on race, gender and access to different resources. And we know that historically, different socioeconomic groups face different outcomes in life. But if we don’t start by digging into the numbers, we are looking at the wrong problem. Quantifying the problem and disaggregating the data by race and other socioeconomic factors allows us to see exactly what the problem is. 

One example: Wealth is seen as a protective factor that leads to, among other things, better health. But by disaggregating the data, researchers have found that for many black and brown people, wealth is not a protective barrier – those who are wealthier often face similar health problems to their less wealthy counterparts. That’s why it’s important to disaggregate by race.

As a public servant, your number one job is to improve the lives of your residents. We can’t act like if we talk about race, we’re being problematic. It’s the reverse. Residents prefer you talk about those differences because they are feeling those differences. If you pretend they don’t exist, you’re not letting them bleed, be angry, heal and move on.


What are the most important topics or programs for which to collect data by race and gender?

You should collect race and gender data for all programs as we recognize there are racial differences in most outcomes. Work with your organization’s data governance team to ensure racial, gender, and other demographic data is being collected appropriately across all programs by conducting a data inventory and establishing data standards. A comprehensive data inventory will help your organization determine what information is being collected and what is not. Establishing data standards will ensure uniformity in how data is collected across all programs. For more information, check out our GovEx Academy courses.    


If data is not available by race, are there proxy measures we can use?

If your organization is collecting data without collecting data on race, the first thing I would do is ask why. It is 2020. Not collecting data by race is intentional.

For most people working in local government, you inherited many of these practices. It’s not on you. But if you are not collecting or not reporting, it’s time to have that conversation.

Also find out if your partner organizations are collecting data on race. Find out what information they have – both qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative data can be just as important.

If none of that is available, you can use census data, ZIP codes and neighborhood block data. If you already know a certain racial group lives predominantly in a certain area, you can make certain assumptions about programming.

Then, if you’re not collecting data by race, start. Put in that investment. It might be embarrassing when you see the results. And that is okay.


How do we break down this message to elected officials?

It all comes back to putting equity frameworks into the design of your decision-making process. If you don’t have these conversations early on, when a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic hits, people make decisions reactively that could potentially do harm to underserved communities. 

Even if you’re the only one in the room speaking up for folks who have historically been under-resourced, this is the time we are relying on you to step up and say something. 

Having these conversations needs to be done. It is uncomfortable. It is work. But your communities who have not been receiving these resources have been bled for years. In the wake of this pandemic, we are going to see levels of poverty and instability we have not seen for many years. This is the time to have those awkward conversations about resources and why they have gone to some folks and why they have not.

Another tip: Focus on a strategic goal, such as minority and women-owned businesses. When resources are low, talk about return on investment. If I build up my minority small business ecosystem, those resources will lift up all small businesses. The tide rises for everyone.


Our  mayor already talks about equity and we collect data by race and gender on our citywide dashboard. Do we really need to change the way we collect data to demonstrate  we care about equitable outcomes?

Congratulations! Your mayor talks about equity. That’s nice. What are you going to do about it?

Most residents aren’t looking at the city-wide dashboard. I don’t want to diminish transparency, because transparency is a big deal. But it’s just step one.

Truly engaging with the community is not just putting it on a dashboard. It’s taking the information to where people are. It’s taking it to local community meetings, to trusted community members, to the church. It’s meeting people where they are. 

It’s also about what you do with the data you’ve collected. You need advocates from the communities the data is coming from at the table with you to make those decisions. And you need an action plan. The data piece is not the end.