How long will it take America to move from ‘Pandemic to Prosperity?’

Lessons from Katrina recovery will be used to measure U.S. pandemic recovery

It wasn’t long after Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed that the New Orleans Index became an invaluable resource to people with an interest in the city and its slow — often painstaking — progress toward recovery.  Neither the hurricane or the water it pushed into the city could have discriminated against anybody, but the New Orleans Index routinely listed the many ways that more vulnerable New Orleanians suffered more damage and recovered more slowly than those who were better off before the storm.

The New Orleans Index was started when Allison Plyer and Denice Ross were co-directors of The Data Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in New Orleans that serves as a data intermediary for the Southeast Louisiana region. Building on their success with that project, Plyer and Ross have helped create Pandemic to Prosperity, a running analysis that will measure how the United States is faring as it tries to move past this coronavirus era.

Published by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC) and announced July 21, six months after the first report that the novel coronavirus had reached this country, the authors say they want the public to consider their resource a “trusted, relevant, and highly-vetted source of information.”

Ross is a senior fellow at the NCOC, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., “dedicated to strengthening civic life in America.” Plyer is The Data Center’s chief demographer.

“We’re very much drawing on our experience from doing the New Orleans Index,” Plyer said Tuesday, specifically the knowledge that “after a disaster there’s a tremendous demand for data.”

That said, the launch of Pandemic to Prosperity differs from the launch of the New Orleans Index in one significant way. In December 2005, when the first report measuring New Orleans’ progress was published, Hurricane Katrina was over. The bodies had mostly been recovered.  And some residents had started mucking out their homes and rebuilding them.

“Normally with a disaster you get sort of a single damage estimate,” Plyer said, “and then you start measuring…from there. In this case, the damage is still happening in terms of lost lives and livelihoods. And so we have to continue to measure those while we also put forward metrics that ensure that the recovery is informed in a more equitable and fair way for everyone.”

It remains to be seen whether the recovery from the pandemic will be equitable, but there’s enough evidence already that infections, hospitalizations and deaths have been anything but.  And not just in a White people versus Black people comparison, but in a White people versus everybody else comparison.

One of the first graphics in the Pandemic to Prosperity report illustrates a finding that has received scant attention. The pandemic has hit the American Indian/ Alaskan Native population hardest.  That population has been 5.6 times more likely than White Americans to suffer severe COVID-19 impacts.

“That’s the most marginalized population of all in our country,” Plyer said, “and they have access to fewer resources than any other population, and they in many cases live in situations without running water. So (maintaining) the CDC recommendations is a real challenge.”

Black Americans and Hispanic Americans have been 4.6 times more likely than White Americans to suffer severe COVID-19 impacts and Asian Americans 1.3 times more likely.

As somebody who saw the disparate toll Hurricane Katrina exacted on Black neighborhoods and communities, you’d think Plyer would have been prepared for data showing that Black Americans have suffered almost five times more often than their White counterparts from COVID-19. But she wasn’t.

“I think the one thing that just has stunned me about this crisis,” she said, “is the level of disparity in the way that it is affecting people of color. It’s just shocking.”  In Louisiana in particular, she said, “the differences in high blood pressure rates between Black folks and White folks…it’s not much. And the difference in diabetes is very minimal.”  But at one point, Black Louisiaians accounted for 70 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, which means, Plyer said that “pre-existing conditions are not the full explanation.”

Researchers quickly wanted to know, Plyer said, why Black people were being infected more often than their White counterparts. And the answer starting to emerge, she said, is that there are occupational risks and household risks that Black people bear disproportionately.  It’s the prevalence of Black people who “don’t have the luxury of working from home” but are instead “in front-line positions that expose them to the disease at much higher rates. They’re working in food processing plants or grocery stores or (as) bus drivers.”

Also, people with lower income may live in more crowded houses, she said. “So if someone comes home with an infection, It’s almost impossible to isolate the person.  We see the infection just running through households.”

Plyer and Ross are highly respected in their fields, so the report they’ve helped put together ought to become the trusted source they want it to be.  But these days, is anybody’s data universally trusted?  Is it even possible to present numbers and figures that approximately half of the country won’t reject?

“I think we’ll build on what proved quite successful with the New Orleans Index, which was to interrogate the data ourselves very rigorously and be clear on all of the limitations and be able to be transparent about the limitations. And also to not have any particular policies that we’re trying to put forward, to be really neutral on the solutions to reinforce the fact that we’re really here just about good data.”