A growing body of data indicates that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting both communities of color and vulnerable populations such as incarcerated and homeless individuals.
Two studies earlier this month — one from AIDS research group amfAR and another from the Kaiser Family Foundation — found that communities of color and low-income individuals account for a higher percent of COVID-19 cases and deaths in comparison to the broader U.S. population. Since early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been reporting more details about COVID-19 patients’ race and ethnicity, as well as underlying health issues, which has increased news coverage of this issue.
Researchers working with homeless and prison populations have collected data showing that some of the most significant clusters of outbreaks are occurring in homeless and prison populations, according to this SciLine briefing held on May 4. SciLine is a journalist tool supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“The coronavirus pandemic has stripped bare the racial divide in the health of our nation,” said a powerful April 29 New York Times Magazine story about a community in New Orleans that has been hard hit by COVID-19.
As health journalists, many of us have written about the long-standing inequities in our health system. The pandemic provides an opportunity to shine an even brighter light on the expanding divide of health outcomes for Americans based on demographic, geographic and ethnic differences.
In explaining the divide in COVID-19 illness and deaths in our reporting, journalists should be careful about the focus of their reporting. Washington Post reporter Robert Samuels urges reporters to avoid focusing only on underlying health conditions frequently found in communities of color or low-income populations, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cardiovascular disease, to explain these disproportionate outcomes.
“When people look at racial issues, the big question people attempt to answer is, what makes it different?” Samuels said during a recent National Press Club Journalist Institute discussion. “We are preoccupied with this idea that blacks live fundamentally different lives than whites. We are focusing on co-morbidities and existing issues … and it is easy for a reporter to stop there … but we can challenge our assumptions and ask, why? Why do they have them?”
Samuels encouraged journalists to try to tell a more accurate story about why COVID-19 is having such a disproportionate impact by examining additional pre-existing economic and policy environments that can play a role in these underlying conditions, he said. If reporters don’t, it can lead to a narrative in which individual or group behavior gets more blame for spreading COVID-19 than the systemic and policy challenges that can contribute to pre-existing conditions.
To help journalists go deeper with these questions, AHCJ is hosting a May 13 webcast with Massachusetts General Hospital physician and Harvard Medical School professor Fatima Cody Stanford. Journalists Matthew Kauffman and Dawn Fallik will join her to talk about how they are approaching the topic of disparities and COVID-19.
AHCJ members are invited to submit questions to the panelists before the webcast to help us get to as many of them as possible.
Cody Stanford, who is an obesity medicine physician-scientist, will talk about how COVID-19 is further highlighting the racial divide in our health care system and how the disease of obesity and underlying policy issues play a role in disproportionate outcomes. She also will discuss how journalists can cover disparities in their communities and how she can be a resource for journalists.
Kauffman, who leads the Solutions Journalism Network’s Positive Deviance database project, will explain how he developed a database of state and local governments that are reporting cases and deaths broken down by race and ethnicity. He also will provide a demonstration for journalists on how to use the data for their reporting.
Fallik, who is a freelance investigative journalist and English professor at the University of Delaware, will discuss her work covering the outbreak, with a focus on disparities related to obesity and disabilities.