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Unmasking Racial Inequality Amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 Roundup

Police surveillance amid the pandemic underscores discriminatory policies against Black Americans.

The COVID-19 Roundup is a curated list for social sector practitioners and policymakers navigating the complexities of the global pandemic.

01. Detroit Quarantine Exposes Legacy of Surveilling Black Bodies

IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft have halted development of their facial recognition systems following a surge in police brutality and racial profiling amid the pandemic and civil unrest. In June, community activists and policy experts examined police surveillance of Black and Brown neighborhoods in Detroit, where Project Green Light, a live surveillance program, has been used to enforce shelter-in-place orders and issue tickets for offenders. Hundreds of cameras placed at gas stations, churches, schools, apartment buildings, liquor stores, clinics, and pharmacies are being used to track residents from a centralized unit at the Detroit Police Department. DCSL Non-Resident Fellow and Detroit Community Technology Project Director Tawana Petty says the program “comes off a very long legacy of surveilling Black bodies.”

02. EDRi Tracks Digital Rights Amid the Pandemic

European Digital Rights (EDRi) has compiled a list of articles at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and digital rights. This “document pool” follows a wide range of surveillance measures employed in Europe, including recommendations from digital rights watchdog organizations around the world. From the EDRi website: “The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic poses a global public health challenge of unprecedented proportions. In order to tackle it, countries around the world need to engage in coordinated, evidence-based responses grounded in solidarity, support and respect for human rights.”

03. To Fix the System, Start with Data

New Orleans health officials are relying more on data-driven strategies now that drive-through testing there has proven ineffective. Thomas LaVeist, co-chair of Louisiana’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, says, “Data is the only way that we can see the virus. We only have indicators. We can’t actually look at a person and tell who’s been infected. So, what we have is data right now.” But detailed data linking race to COVID-19 is unavailable to many researchers. The GovLab has identified a number of problem areas, including healthcare, where data analysis can help to illustrate where racial inequality exists. The work supports cross-sectoral efforts to make disaggregated data more readily available. But opening up datasets isn’t enough. Finding solutions to the challenges faced by Black communities “will require institutions and individuals to reflect on how they may be complicit in perpetuating structural and systematic inequalities and harm and to ask better questions about the inequities that exist in society.”

04. Racial Inequality Stems from a “Lack of Political Will”

For Katie Lau, a technical specialist at Plan International, preventing further entrenchment of racial inequality during the pandemic is about holding those in power accountable “for the structural injustices that have been exacerbated by the crisis.” Lau brings attention to measures in Portugal to grant citizenship rights to asylum-seekers, showing how “it is not a lack of resources but rather a lack of political will that stops states from dismantling the structures that systematically exclude minorities.”

05. The Risk of Sharing Private Health Data for Public Good

As governments look to immunity apps to manage the spread of COVID-19, Ada Lovelace Institute warns that digital immunity certification could “shape how citizens access parts of society, interact with the economy and exercise their rights.” The Institute has advanced six issues for policymakers as they deliberate on how these apps will be deployed. In a recent discussion about health identity systems and pandemic response, policy experts and academics explored whether an immunity certification could lead to a “public health identity,” and if so, how permanent the resulting system would be.

06. Policy Expert Calls for Analysis of Trusted Sources

Purveyors of COVID-19 denial are using well-coordinated disinformation campaigns to foment violent sentiment as concerned citizens take to the streets. Dr. Joan Donovan, Research Director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, is calling for “careful analysis” of how Black organizers and rights advocates frame the issues. On digital platforms, bad actors have used “source hacking” to distort information from trusted sources in order to manipulate the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of protestors and political leaders alike. Many blame the failure of social media platforms to curb the spread of disinformation and propaganda, which “syncs with the dictator’s playbook, enabling the erosion of our democratic institutions.”

07. The World Wide Web Has a Health Crisis of Its Own

Authoritarian regimes in Ethiopia are using disinformation as an excuse to punish dissidents, which has decimated civil and political liberties and put the country’s free press in a precarious state. Mozilla’s Solana Larsen describes the current moment as “an inflection point,” where either Internet health continues to collapse, or the crisis acts as a “springboard for positive, lasting change.” A silver lining: the web-based game “Choose Your Own Fake News” is teaching people in East Africa how to spot misinformation online. Neema Iyer, the game’s creator, wants web users in the region (many of whom are coming online for the first time) to be “more discerning about the information they receive.”

08. Philanthropy and Civil Society After COVID-19

Charities Aid Foundation’s Rhodri Davies asks, “Will greater awareness of the role technological solutions are playing in the [COVID-19] response together with the experience of having to engage with new digital tools and platforms, convince more organisations across civil society of the need to engage with what technology can offer, as well as the challenges it creates?” Episode 75 of the Giving Thought Podcast looks at the effects of COVID-19 on CSOs, with a focus on public expectations, sector reputation, the effects of enforced digitization, data sharing, mutual vs. charitable tradition, and more.

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