COVID-19 Op-ed

Lack of disaggregated data a glaring gap in Southeast Asia’s COVID-19 response

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Sam CartmellMinority Rights
Group International’s Southeast Asia Programme Coordinator for the “Enhancing
Quality and Universal access to Indigenous People’s reproductive healthcare”
(EQUIP) programme. MRGI is documenting challenges minorities and indigenous
peoples face in relation to the current COVID-19 health crisis; please visit
to learn more or to report your experience.

into this pandemic it is still surprisingly common to hear the sentiment
‘this virus does not discriminate, we are all equally at risk.’ That is not
true. There are examples from around the world showing that certain segments
of society disproportionately suffer from the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its wider
socio-economic impacts.In early April shocking statistics revealed that
African Americans in many US cities were becoming infected with the virus and
dying from COVID-19 at many times their representation in
the population. Similar statistics are seen in
and the UK. Globally, there are growing demands
by doctors and community representatives for all
governments and healthcare providers to disaggregate COVID-19 data by race
and ethnicity. In addition to racial and ethnic minorities, other
marginalized groups are disproportionately vulnerable during this pandemic;
factors include employment status, income-level, political
exclusion, access to healthcare,
co-morbidities, disability, religious
affiliation, sexual orientation, housing
status, and immigration status.In Southeast
Asia, the extent to which COVID-19 related health outcomes and socio-economic
impacts differ for minorities remains unknown. One reason being that there is
no data. A review of the official COVID-19 data reporting platforms for
Malaysia, Myanmar,
Philippines and Singapore indicates
that governments in the region are not collecting and publishing data
disaggregated by ethnicity or characteristics relevant to marginalized
groups. The lack of disaggregated data is a glaring gap in the region’s
COVID-19 response.All ASEAN countries have agreed to the 2030 Agenda for
Sustainable Development, and as such have already made a commitment
to meeting the goals and targets “for all nations and peoples and for all
segments of society” and to collecting “timely and reliable data
disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status,
disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in
national contexts.” Disaggregated data is key to achieving the Sustainable
Development Goals (SDGs).The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has
recommended “the disaggregation of data on the basis of indigenous identifiers/ethnicity
and the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples” in achieving
the SDGs. In response to the current pandemic,
the Forum has noted that “data on the rate of infection in Indigenous 
peoples are either not yet available (even where reporting and testing are
available), or not recorded by ethnicity.”The United Nations Population Fund
has identified indigenous women as being particularly vulnerable to health
related discrimination; resulting in worse access and poorer health outcomes
than majority populations. Due to a general lack of
disaggregated data these negative impacts are often ‘invisible’ and harder
for governments and other stakeholders to ameliorate.Without the collection
of disaggregated data in Southeast Asia, we don’t know whether the impacts of
the pandemic are significantly different for minorities and marginalized
groups than for majority populations. In the context of a virus outbreak,
this blind spot poses a serious public health risk as it may allow pockets of
infection go unnoticed and spread more widely. In addition to the social good
of providing appropriate healthcare and justice for minorities, it is in the
self-interest of majority populations to address the health needs of minority
and marginalized populations.Southeast Asian governments and other
stakeholders – such as civil society and community-based organizations,
international humanitarian and non-governmental organizations, faith-based
groups, private sector, and ethnic armed organisations – should
immediately bring a minority-sensitive approach to their COVID-19 response
efforts, including:

  • Having representatives of ethnic
    minority and marginalized communities themselves collect and interpret the
  • Facilitating the participation of indigenous
    people, ethnic minorities and marginalized groups in developing COVID-19
    response plans.
  • Analyzing existing health data to
    identify potential vulnerabilities of minorities and marginalized people, and
    designing mitigation measures.
  • Mainstreaming the
    collection and publishing of disaggregated data on national COVID-19
    reporting platforms.

Undoubtedly there are risks and
sensitivities around ethnicity-based data disaggregation – for example in
Cambodia – and the approach may need to be
different in different countries. Governments should take the lead from
ethnic minority and marginalized people. ASEAN may have a role to play by
promoting standardized data collection and publication guidelines which
minimize the potential use of the data for discrimination or hate speech.The
benefits of disaggregated COVID-19 data are numerous: providing a fuller
picture of the impact of the virus across the region; identifying emerging
pockets of outbreak in minority communities; targeting previously hidden
vulnerabilities of minority populations; creating more effective IEC
materials tailored to minority communities in their own languages; and
enabling governments to fully meet their SDG commitments on health
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