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The Coronavirus has exposed numerous inequities between communities, but because of the way the state categorizes ethnicities and captures data, it’s unclear where specific groups may fall into those gaps.

Questions on how certain racial and ethnic groups are being impacted by the virus and on their vaccination rates are popping up because of a lack of state data — often forcing community health leaders to make educated guesses on where and who to send resources.

Joel Jenkins, Senior Community Advocacy Coordinator for the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, said this data is important in providing a clear picture of what’s going on with the pandemic.

“From a public health point of view, all numbers are people. Each one of these data points is a person that interacts with the community,” Jenkins said. “When you’re dealing with something like an airborne disease as part of a pandemic, each one of those interactions are possible points of risk or they could be points where folks can safeguard themselves.”

One such group where there is a lack of data is the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) community. 

[Read: Nonprofit Sparks Efforts to Vaccinate OC’s Muslim Population; Pandemic Data on Arab Community Nonexistent]

Across the country they have been pushing to get a Middle Eastern and North African category added to the census and recognized as their own ethnic grouping for decades.

Arabs, Middle Easterners and North Africans are currently categorized as white but many don’t identify as such and they say it leaves their community when it comes to research and resources invisible. 

It is a debate that prompted Palestinian Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) to ask the former Census Bureau Director “Do I look white to you?” last year. Tlaib listed health research as one of the reasons the MENA category was needed.

People like Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder of the Arab American Civic Council, are saying the pandemic is showing why such a category is important.

“We don’t know how this pandemic is impacting us. We’re just lumped into the white racial category even though we have our own challenges as a community,” Al-Dabbagh said. 

Left, Laila Yousufi, 30, receives her first dose at the Islamic center in Santa Ana on May 1, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPPO, Voice of OC

It’s not just data on Middle Easterners that has been lacking during the pandemic. 

While there is data on the Asian Pacific Islander population it needs to be broken down into more specific groups, some local health leaders say.

“It’s not disaggregated,” said Ellen Ahn, executive director of the Buena Park-based Korean Community Services, “The Asian community is just as, if not, more complex than the Arab community and we don’t get disaggregated data at all. That’s a huge issue.”

Korean Community Services is part of a coalition of nine Asian American and Pacific Islander groups tasked with reaching hard hit communities to offer testing, vaccines and general virus education.

Ahn said the issue lies at the state level and disaggregated data is critical to target communities.

“We need that data to drive our work to be efficient with resources, to make sure that we’re really targeting communities that have the greatest need,” Ahn said.

County officials acknowledged nobody really knows how impacted the Arab community is because of the lack of data.

It’s not only the census, but the way the state groups ethnicities.

Jenkins said the lack of a Middle Eastern/North African category is problematic for many reasons.

“Objectively it means that it’s really difficult to create a good set of data and really be able to advocate for connecting Arab American communities to a lot of the resources that only are made available if you have that accurate representation when you quantify these issues,” Jenkins said.

The Orange County Health Care Agency’s website lists the number of people who died from the virus for various ethnicities like Latino, White, Asian and Black, but not Middle Eastern or Arab. 

It’s the same for state and local vaccination data.

“The California immunization registry database — (which our) team goes in and pulls down every week — does not separate out the Arabic community,” Dr. Clayton Chau, Health Care Agency director and county Health Officer, said in an interview last week.

“Even if any provider asks the person and when they submit the information, it just doesn’t get captured in the state database.”

The data on what percentage of the different ethnic groups have been vaccinated doesn’t show how much of the county’s Native American population has received a shot either nor for people who identify as multiple races.

Native Americans make up 1% of the county’s population while people of two or more races make up 3.6, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Arab American Institute estimates there are around 3.7 million Arab Americans living in the United States, with the highest population being in California. 

Over 370,000 Arab Americans are estimated to live in the state and around 41,000 in Orange County.

Those numbers are based on the American Community Survey and U.S. Census Bureau, but the Arab American Institute says the estimate is significantly lower than the actual Arab American population in California.

Middle to right, Chloe Choi, accompanies her mother Tabitha Choi during her vaccination at the Providence location in Santa Ana on April 22, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

There’s also continued efforts to get a more comprehensive understanding of the Asian American population. 

Jenkins said there are organizations, like the one he works for, that are pushing for data that dives deeper than the generalized “Asian Pacific Islander” grouping.

“Just that category itself is used, instead of the many different ethnicities, many different national origins, the many different cultural and linguistic identities that are under that broad category and there are also immense disparities,” he said.

Ahn said without the data, community health clinics are forced to guess which groups within the Asian and Pacific Islander have been hit the hardest through what they hear anecdotally.

“We know our community best and it’s not just Korean versus Chinese. The more detailed that data is the better,” Ahn said.

Al-Dabbagh said the Biden administration has promised to get a Middle Eastern/North African category on the census.

“COVID exposed why it’s important. We already knew why it was important but now it’s evident,” he said.

Ahn said come June or July the county will be looking at how the Asian and Pacific Islander community will be worked on in the future.

“The county made a lot of mistakes but at the same time they’re really doing their best to try to address…all the needs in all the various API communities and I think this is a good time to bring up the MENA question and how we begin addressing some of the MENA communities,” she said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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