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Erasing the Dead

Underreporting in communities of color has left us with a distorted view of the pandemic’s true reach—and the lessons we’ll need for next time.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Tucked down near the end of a recent New York Times piece praising New Mexico’s response to the coronavirus was the fact that, “While Native Americans account for about 11 percent of New Mexico’s population, new data on Thursday showed that they make up 44 percent of the state’s confirmed coronavirus cases.” VPM reported that Black residents made up all eight of Richmond’s coronavirus deaths, along with 62 percent of the Virginia capital’s confirmed cases. The Los Angeles Times found that Latinx people between the ages of 18 and 49 were actually suffering higher infection and death rates than their older community members.

These are the statistics that bear out the material, life and death consequences of systemic racism. They are also, tragically, not surprising. But what has also become crystal clear in recent weeks is that the data we have, staggering as it is, represents just a slice of the fuller picture.

On Friday, Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle published a piece in The Guardian that examined the undercounting of Native Americans by state governments and found that within the 80 percent of state health departments that have released racial and ethnic demographic data, half either excluded Native people entirely or listed them under “other.” (This classification has a history: In the Jim Crow South, Native people were also segregated, with water fountains, bathrooms, movie theater sections, and hospital wings split by “white,” “colored,” and “other.”) Even in New York City, where 111,749 New Yorkers identified as American Indian or Alaska Native in the 2010 Census, which is 1.3 percent of the population, the city has not included them in its racial or ethnic statistics when tracking the virus. Looking outside of Indian Country and back to the Los Angeles Times report, it noted that “preliminary racial data released by health officials in California and L.A. County earlier this month suggested Latinos were not facing any higher rate of infection or death from the virus.” Clearly, that wasn’t the case.

This crisis-within-the-crisis extends beyond marginalized communities to the general population. Last week, a coalition of journalists across North Carolina co-published a piece in the News & Observer to report that death certificates in the state—which determine a person’s official cause of death and are used for state reporting of statistics in the pandemic—have been regularly citing noncoronavirus ailments as the cause for death. “When state officials say 213 state residents have died of the virus as of Tuesday morning, they can only include those who tested positive,” the journalists wrote. “Those with the same symptoms but no Covid-19 test results aren’t included—even if a physician suspected the virus.”

Also in North Carolina, Prism found that multiple pork and dairy processing centers have been underreporting the number of positive cases found among their workers, the majority of whom are Latinx. Ilana Dubester, the executive director of a group that supports Latinx workers in Chatham, Alamance, Randolph, and Lee counties, told Prism that her organization had received “too many calls to keep track of” from workers who were sick. On April 22, a worker at Mountaire Farms’ Siler City poultry processing plant going by the pseudonym Rosa discovered that 11 of her co-workers had tested positive after hearing it on the news—not from Mountaire Farms. “I’m concerned why they aren’t giving us the news or updates,” she told Prism. “All of a sudden they stopped talking to us.”

In New York City, a New York Times review of mortality data found that between mid-March and late April, the city saw a 300 percent surge in the average number of deaths. While 15,411 people were listed as having died from Covid-19, 3,800 were not. “At this stage, it’s a partial snapshot,” Patrick Gerland, a demographer at the United Nations, told the paper, adding that “in the next couple of months, a much clearer picture will be possible.”

It’s hard to get a full grip on the consequences of this kind of underreporting and misreporting, especially in real time, with the data shifting and updating every day. But a failure to take a full account of the ways in which the pandemic impacts communities of color and economically underserved neighborhoods means that the different needs of those communities will likely be erased as we try to prepare for the next crisis. It sets us on a course to repeat our deadly present. On an individual level, there is the pain of losing a loved one without a true understanding of what happened. On a community level, this experience is replicated until it becomes normalized—a recent poll from Siena College Research Institute found that 46 percent of New Yorkers know someone who’s died from the virus.

A day will come when the coronavirus pandemic is behind us. There will be an “other side,” distorted and strange as it almost certainly will be. Schools will reopen, parks will fill up, sports will be played, and people will establish a new sense of normalcy. The virus, or more specifically the extended time period in which the nation and the world ground to a halt, will be spoken of in the past tense. The memory of the pandemic will linger in everyone’s mind. But if this trend continues, the true toll will be unfairly shouldered by the same communities that have historically been ignored. And by the time the rest of the country realizes what’s happened, it will be too late.