Coronavirus, Race, And Why It's Important To Track That Data : Code Switch Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, numbers have been flying at us about the spread of the illness—and then the next minute those same numbers are refuted. This week, we're talking to Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic about why the data is so all over the place, and why that matters, especially for people of color.
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The News Beyond The COVID Numbers

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The News Beyond The COVID Numbers

The News Beyond The COVID Numbers

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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I'm Gene Demby.


I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this is CODE SWITCH.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The death toll from coronavirus has jumped dramatically tonight.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, you know, when I listen to the press every night, saying we have the most, we don't have the most-in-the-world deaths.

ANTHONY FAUCI: There are now - should be between 1 1/2 to 2-plus million tests per week.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: There's a new study out from Harvard this morning that says we're going to need to be doing something like 5 million tests a day.


MERAJI: Numbers are flying at us about the coronavirus. And then the next minute, those same numbers are being refuted.

DEMBY: Listen. So what the hell are we supposed to believe?

MERAJI: Well, a bunch of people, Gene, have made it their unofficial job to collect the official coronavirus data and make it available to all of us. And it may not surprise you that what they're working with is a hot, stinky mess.

DEMBY: It does not surprise me.


MERAJI: No. And their fearless leader is a humble staff writer from The Atlantic magazine named Alexis Madrigal.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: That is really what this project, on a metalevel, really points out, I think, is just the lack of reliable data when decision makers have been trained to make data-driven decisions.

DEMBY: All month long, as you know, we've been telling stories about one of the most important datasets in the United States. That would be the U.S. Census. But on this episode, we're shifting focus to the numbers that everyone is obsessed with right now, the coronavirus numbers - who's been tested for it, who has it and who has died from it.

MERAJI: And how did those numbers break down by race? I spoke with Alexis about all of this, Gene. He told me his team is sifting through COVID data all day, every day. And they're calling this endeavor...

MADRIGAL: The COVID Tracking Project.

MERAJI: So how would you explain The COVID Tracking Project to my grandma?

MADRIGAL: Oh. Well, grandma, the way that this outbreak has gone, the federal government has not produced reliable statistics about the national picture, nor have they compiled the state-by-state testing, case, hospitalization and death data. So that is what we do. We're sort of like a pirate CDC.

MERAJI: And where are you getting most of the data?

MADRIGAL: We are getting the data from state health departments. The states largely control their own kind of health situation. And as a result, they generate their own statistics, which are variable across all 50 states, the District of Columbia as well as U.S. territories. And we go every day with real human beings. And we ingest that data.

MERAJI: How many human beings does it take to do that?

MADRIGAL: We actually just checked today. There are - 77 people have contributed to the effort so far.


MADRIGAL: It's probably - the core of it is probably, like, 30 people. We have shift leads. We have double-checkers. And then, we have checkers who are the, like, first people to hit the data. Then the double-checkers come behind them. And the shift leads kind of watch over it all with loving grace.

MERAJI: To make things even more complicated, you added this other layer to your data collection, which is the COVID racial data tracker.


MERAJI: Why did you do that?

MADRIGAL: Yeah. Well, a few things. I mean, we were seeing that some states were beginning to provide racial data. In some of my other work, like a book I currently have with my publisher, FSG, but that isn't going to come out any time soon (laughter), now that we're looking at this. I had seen - the book is largely about an environmental justice leader named Margaret Gordon here in Oakland. And people, black people in the Flatlands are literally dying of the same things as white people in the Hills, but they're dying 15 years earlier. And when you have that kind of health disparity, one would expect that something like COVID would also reveal and highlight and exacerbate those disparities.

So this is something that we were aware of. But my colleague at The Atlantic, Ibram Kendi, and another colleague named Vann Newkirk wrote these very powerful essays about both what was going on in the South, in Vann's case, and in Ibram's case - really, very directly saying we need this data. And we need this data to understand what's going on this outbreak now. And we're going to need it to understand what's going on with this outbreak into the future.

So obviously, you know, The COVID Tracking Project is housed in The Atlantic. And so it's Ibram Kennedy's writing. And so we got in touch. And we were like, OK, you've identified this problem. And maybe working together, we could provide, at least a Band-Aid solution, at least some way of beginning to track this data. So he has a group at American University called the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center. And we've started to collect this data now. And, of course, listeners to this show will probably find the way that the states are reporting this data somewhere between exasperating, hilarious and horrifying. But, you know, it's the classic stuff like just reporting, you know, quote-unquote, "Hispanic." My family's Mexican. And I was basically forbidden from saying Hispanic in our house. So (laughter) - for what that's worth.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

MADRIGAL: But, you know, basically states reporting Hispanic as a race alongside, you know, Asian, black and white. And we - one of the things that we really hope to be able to do is to encourage the 24 states and territories that are not currently reporting any kind of racial data to do so but also encouraging the 32 states that are reporting some form of racial data to at least match the census categories for Christ sake, you know?

MERAJI: Which are confusing in and of itself, for sure.

MADRIGAL: Which are confusing in - 100%. But at least make this data something you can compare across other things the government is putting out. Like, that seems like a base - like, the - at a very basic level, something that should be happening, and that is not happening in a lot of cases. And one group in particular that I am thinking a lot about are black-Hispanic people.


MADRIGAL: You know, the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and things where we just don't - we know that health disparities, we know that segregation, we know that a lot of other things have shown those groups to have really different outcomes from white-Hispanic people. And we really want to be able to track that independently, especially given the concentration of those folks in New York and the concentration of the outbreak in New York. So...


MADRIGAL: ...For me, it's we don't even - for example, we don't even know if black Dominicans are being filed in as black race, or they're being filed as Hispanic race. It just shows the way that, like, A - racial categorization is, like, fluid and oftentimes ridiculous. (Laughter). And it also shows that we actually need ways of tracking this that would actually let these disparities show instead of hide them.


MERAJI: After the break, Alexis tells me what race data he wants states to start collecting right now.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. And we're back, Shereen, with your conversation with Alexis Madrigal who is a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine and who is now heading up The COVID Tracking Project. The COVID Tracking Project recently started tracking race data in partnership with Ibram X. Kendi, who we've heard on the podcast before...


DEMBY: ...Who heads up the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Here's Alexis.

MADRIGAL: Something that none of the states are reporting, which we're pretty interested in, is testing, like, overall, not just positive cases but, you know, racial breakdown but actual, like, testing racial breakdowns like the total tests to the number of negative tests. We think testing availability and accessibility is also a really interesting part of this because we know that black communities in particular, that undocumented communities are underserved by the health care system for a whole variety of reasons that I'm sure, again, listeners to this show will already know and be able to recite. But we need to know that also. Like, one - like, I just heard one story from a doctor at Central Valley here in California - hospital, community hospital.

MERAJI: Yeah. And for people who don't know the Central Valley that well or aren't from California, it's the breadbasket of not only California but of the whole United States. And it's where there are so many agricultural workers, many of whom are undocumented.

MADRIGAL: Their...

MERAJI: So yeah.

MADRIGAL: Indigenous folks who are doing harvesting out there in the fields don't have access to the same set of information about if they should get tested or how they should get tested and things like that. And we also know that those folks probably are on a migratory path that will eventually take them back to rural areas of Mexico which might be totally unprepared for this kind of disease outbreak.

And it really worries me that we're not really able to capture or know if a lot of these communities are actually getting tested at rates that are comparable to, you know, white suburbanites somewhere. And that really feels like a significant piece of information that we're missing.

MERAJI: So there are critics of collecting data by race that say, you know, you can gather socioeconomic data in zip code data. And that can also really work to pinpoint where exactly these problems are...


MERAJI: ...Flaring up. And it's not that important to collect data based on race. And when you do collect this kind of data, you really run the risk of people being thought of as being genetically predisposed to things or blamed for things because of their race rather than having, you know, a broader conversation about inequities in the system like housing segregation.


MERAJI: What do you think of that criticism?

MADRIGAL: Yeah. I mean, it's always so interesting because I hear that argument most from people who, in all other things, are like, collect all the data, you know? I'm like, why do we suddenly not want to collect this data on this one thing, you know? The way I think about it is we're not really collecting data on race, although, that's the form that it takes. We're collecting data on racism. And that's why people don't want this data collected. I think that - here's how I think of it.

Do I, as someone, you know, whose father's from Mexico, who was born in Mexico, do I want to know what's happening with Mexicans specifically? Yes, I do. (Laughter). So like, I don't see a ton of black people out there saying, like, you know what? Let's just not collect the data on black people, right? I don't see - I just don't - I don't see that right now. And so one of the things that I'm saying is for my particular community and for what I'm hearing people in directly affected communities are saying is we would like this data. And I would like to get that for us and them.

MERAJI: Look. I've reported on race for years now. One thing I hear all the time from communities of color is that, you know, we'll raise our hands. And we'll say there's a problem in our community, right? We'll go on the record about this problem. If we are lucky, if we are lucky, local government or nonprofits will spend some time collecting data to show that, yes, indeed, there is a problem in this community. At this point and by this time, it has been years. So there's finally some data that says, hey, yes, there is a problem. And then guess what? Nothing changes.

MADRIGAL: Right. (Laughter). I wish we had Ms. Margaret here on the show to be here. I mean, this is something that she's really - this is the person that's sort of the main character of the book that I've been working on for years. I take my lead from her on this, which is basically that, like, data by itself is more or less inert, right? Like, you can gather all the data you want about health disparities. But if you don't find the ways to make decision makers hear about that which oftentimes means - first, using that data to activate your community and then, the community putting the pressure on the policymakers. And then, you know, there's all these different things.

You've got to know how the levers of power work in order to operate the machine, you know? And I think figuring out where and how data can actually influence things is and of itself, like, an art that people, like Ms. Margaret, have been developing for a long time. And the environmental justice movement in particular has been very good at figuring - I come to think of it like an offensive and defensive strategies. Like, on the one hand, they've been very good at, like, picking apart the official statistics, you know, where they say, like, look at - you don't have the air pollution monitoring equipment in the right place. So, of course, you're not picking up this stuff, right? They've been very good at that side of things and also more defensive.

So, you know, somebody says, oh, well, this isn't really a problem. And they say, oh, yeah? We collected this data, and it says that it is a problem, you know? So it's worth always remembering that this data, when it goes into the political realm to try and generate change or legislation or new ordinances or zoning changes or whatever it is, it's going to have a role. But at the end of the day, you still need the city council to pass the ordinance. You still need the state legislators to do the thing. You need, like, the development commission to block the - this thing or allow that thing, you know?

Like, it's never going to - the people have a dream of a kind of technocratic ideal in which the data rules, you know, the Google version. Well, which color blue is the best blue? Well, we tested 47 blues, and it was this one. You know, that's kind of that technocratic ideal. But in real interest group politics and within cities and states and the nation, it never really works like that. But it doesn't mean that having no data on your side is better.

MERAJI: A couple of days ago - we're recording this interview on April 16. And a couple days ago, your colleague Ibram X. Kendi, who runs the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center, who you're working with on the COVID racial data tracker, even wrote a piece in The Atlantic saying that as the data keeps getting updated, a clearer picture of racial disparities is coming into view. And that picture is putting black people at the center of the coronavirus crisis. What do you think the picture would look like if there was a more uniform approach to collecting race and ethnicity data?

MADRIGAL: I mean, I think we'd be seeing the same health disparities that have plagued America forever. I just - I don't see that there's any reason to expect that we wouldn't see that stuff. And so it's kind of like taking the, like, slow-burn tragedy of American health and, like, speeding it up. You know, you see people say this in general, but I think it's specifically important to this, that I really think we can't, you know, talk about this as sort of our communities of color or just, like, our vulnerable populations.

I think we need to really name one of the major things we're talking about here, which is how will the disparate impact hit black communities in the United States because we know things about how the health care system has long underserved black people in this country. And we really need to, like, not let that particular kind of American antiblackness, like, get diluted by some of the other things that I was just saying about like, well, maybe this - like, Mexican immigrants are going to have, like, a different - like, one of the key things we need to keep our eyes on is very specifically what's happening to black people in America.


MERAJI: Alexis Madrigal is a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. You can find The COVID Tracking Project's work at

MERAJI: And later this week, we're dropping another episode from our series, exploring who we are and who counts in 2020. And this one's about a movement in Puerto Rico to get Puerto Ricans to put black as their race on the U.S. Census.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are not white. So for us, it's very important that we have a political answer to this question in the census.

DEMBY: And if you haven't yet, check out our special series. It's been running all April. And the stories are flames. I mean, I'm biased. But, yes, they're flames.

MERAJI: I agree (laughter). I'm biased. But, yes, I agree.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: This episode was produced by me with help from Leah Donnella. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: And big love to the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, LA Johnson and Natalie Escobar. Our interns are Isabella Rosario and Dianne Lugo. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

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