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How data can help us tackle deep-seated problems

How data can help us tackle deep-seated problems

Credit: Shutterstock/University of Essex

Dr Alita Nandi | University of Essex

4 min read Partner content

The R rate, cases per 100,000 – we’ve all got used to regular data updates in the last year, but other numbers behind the scenes are helping to shape our response to the pandemic too.

In January, the government announced £23 million in funding to help councils in England fight coronavirus misinformation and get high-risk communities vaccinated.

This was a vital and welcome step, because as many as 72% of Black people have said they are unlikely to accept the vaccine, even though mortality for Black African and Caribbean people has been 2-2.5 times higher than for White people.

But how did we know it was needed?

The data on vaccine take-up came from the national survey I work for: Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study. We follow over 100,000 UK residents and survey them each year, building up a rich picture of people’s lives.

The large size of Understanding Society makes it possible to explore the experiences of different ethnic minority groups in the UK, adding new perspectives and suggesting ways to target policy and tackle the impact of the virus.

Last year, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and The Health Foundation, we launched an additional Covid-19 survey which involves interviewing our sample members every one or two months during the ongoing pandemic to understand how their lives have been impacted.

While healthcare is still rightly the main focus of everyone’s attention, our data have helped researchers and policymakers to understand the pandemic’s social and economic effects.

For example, we knew that before Covid-19, British people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds reported poorer health and incomes than their White British counterparts. We now know that Covid-19 has exacerbated these existing inequalities.

With the potential for tackling deep-seated social problems, data can make us, as a society, better prepared for the challenges to come, as well as the ones we face right now.

Not only are the largest economic shocks being felt by BAME people, single parents, and those on the lowest incomes, the health effects are also uneven.

All ethnic groups have felt their mental health decline since the onset of the pandemic, but this has been more pronounced among Pakistani and Bangladeshi men than similar White men.

Our own analysis suggests that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who live in areas with relatively high concentrations of their own ethnic group have not experienced the same declines in mental health, but we also know that – despite clapping for the NHS, and people shopping for vulnerable neighbours – social cohesion has taken a hit since the beginning of 2020.

Not only that, but declines in perceived levels of neighbourhood communication were greater for British Black Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people than for the White British population.

We’ve now released six ‘waves’ of our Covid-19 survey data, and made data collected in 2019 available, so that researchers can compare people’s lives before and during the pandemic.

ONS has used our data in its own assessment of the uneven impact of Covid on different ethnic groups, helping the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit to understand the issue and the Minister for Equalities to report on progress to address these health inequalities.

Our data on vaccine hesitancy were presented to SAGE in January, prompting the government’s funding announcement.

Using this rich data, future research can dig deeper and tell us why some minority groups were hesitant about the vaccine.

The data were gathered in November, before any vaccine had been approved, so people were telling us whether they’d accept a vaccine if it was offered.

We’re now asking them what they’ll do when it’s offered, and hopefully that crucial difference – and the government’s campaign – will change some of those answers.

Our main annual survey includes questions on almost all aspects of a person’s life, ranging from their socio-economic and family background, their educational journey and labour market experience, their income, health and wellbeing to their views about the environment, voting behaviour and voting intentions.

Using this rich data, future research can dig deeper and tell us why some minority groups were hesitant about the vaccine.

Covid-19 is just one area in which our data – and longitudinal data in general – can help us understand how we live, and in informing and shaping policy.

With the potential for tackling deep-seated social problems, data can make us, as a society, better prepared for the challenges to come, as well as the ones we face right now.

 

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Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

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