At the recent AIMed webinar on population health and social inequities, Dr. Anthony Chang, AIMed Founder and Chief Artificial Intelligence (AI) Officer at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) said we are probably living in “a pandemic within a pandemic” now because of the disproportionate influx of Black and Hispanic COVID-19 patients. As such, this ongoing global health crisis might render a unique opportunity for technology and us to reflect on the issue of racial biases and social inequities.

The lack of inclusive COVID-19 data and studies

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has made a fresh call for new research proposals that examine the impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities. The funding agency will be offering up to £5 million to projects that address the various social, cultural, and economic impacts of the pandemic as well as the susceptibility of different minority groups to the novel coronavirus.

The call hopes to close the gaps in the present research landscape but it may also be an echo to the criticism made to a report put together by the Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency under the UK Department of Health and Social Care this June on failing to provide actionable recommendations to reduce health disparities.

PHE did a swift review of coronavirus and its impact on different populations in early May. Related findings, published on 2 June, found that individuals of Bangladeshi ethnicity are twice more likely to die from COVID-19 as compared to White British. Other Black and ethnic minority (BAME) groups (i.e., Indian, Caribbean, Chinese, Pakistani, other Asian, and other Black ethnicities) also each bears 10 to 50% higher risk of death from the virus as compared to their White counterparts.

The report also stated that individuals of ethnic minority backgrounds are more at risk of a poor health outcome because of a greater chance of co-morbidities. The results were derived after analyzing thousands of health records and health outcome data of patients who were infected with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent of COVID-19; those who work for the National Health Service (NHS), the public health system of UK and the vulnerable (i.e., homeless, living in poverty).

However, other academic institutions such as The Institute for Fiscal Studies believes the impacts of COVID-19 is not uniform across ethnic groups and data or analyses that aggregate all minorities together will miss important differences. There is a definite and desperate need for more inclusive COVID-19 data and research studies.

Closing the gaps in the research landscape

Coincidentally, United Nations Officer of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) also reported on 2 June that the growing disparities in how COVID-19 is affecting certain racial and ethnic minority groups need to be addressed urgently. UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet said, “the data tells us of a devastating impact from Covid-19 on people of African descent, as well as ethnic minorities in some countries, including Brazil, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States”.

Bachelet asserted this is a global concern and it’s important to systematically collect and analyze data of different ethnicities and gender for a more informed public health response. “In many other places, we expect similar patterns are occurring, but we are unable to say for sure given that data by race and ethnicity is simply not being collected or reported. The appalling impact of Covid-19 on racial and ethnic minorities is much discussed, but what is less clear is how much is being done to address it.”

In the official statement, UKRI also highlighted a similar urgency in building an understanding of measures that can help to mitigate poor health outcomes among ethnic minorities. UKRI hopes that the proposals will “acknowledge the heterogeneity of the UK minority ethnic populations” and set out a “clear strategy for maximizing the potential for knowledge exchange with policymakers, practitioners and the minority ethnic communities”.

Ideally, the research should involve members of these communities. Areas of interests could include but not limited to housing and employment circumstances that influence one’s likelihood of exposure to COVID-19; access to welfare benefits and supports during the pandemic; consequences of the pandemic on children and youth from minority ethnic groups; community resilience, and trust towards authority figures and institutions. All proposals should be submitted before midnight of 18 September and will be reviewed within six weeks. More details about the call can be found here.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.