Research highlight: Working together to examine why BAME populations in developed countries are severely affected by COVID-19

Dr Michelle King-Okoye is leading a team of researchers to examine why people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds in developed countries are severely affected by COVID-19.

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Dr Michelle King-Okoye, IGDORE.

“I am saddened by the escalating deaths from COVID-19 among BAME populations and I am dedicated to ensuring that all marginalised communities are included in this research”

In her quest to unearth factors that contribute to the increasing mortality rates among people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in developed countries, Dr King-Okoye, a researcher at The Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE); an affiliated researcher of Ronin Institute and alumna of The University of Surrey, UK is leading an international team of researchers who aim to positively influence policy-making and improve healthcare in developed countries with the results of their study.

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The current study focuses on developed countries: USA, UK, Canada, Europe and Australia through multiple research collaborations. Image: Puwadol Jaturawutthichai/Shutterstock.com

“We are currently conducting a systematic review of the reported symptoms, help-seeking accounts, and diagnosis and treatment- subjective experiences of BAME populations in developed countries with suspected, confirmed active, or previous SARS-CoV-2 and/or COVID-19 disease. The systematic review will be completed by the end of August and has been registered with PROSPERO (The International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews)”, Dr King-Okoye said about the study she is leading.

“There is also a wider mixed methods study with another team of researchers, which examines barriers to testing, diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 for BAME populations in developed countries through surveys and qualitative research. The evidence clearly demonstrates that mortality rates from COVID-19 are highest among BAME populations in developed countries. Current studies have explicitly focused on identifying risk factors for ethnic minorities. Descriptive epidemiology and multivariate analyses show that these populations bear a high burden from COVID-19 disease. Yet, there is a dearth of studies with a focus on personal experiences of being diagnosed and treated for COVID-19. This study is the first to explore barriers to care for BAME individuals with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 disease. Identifying and understanding exactly where these barriers occur is a critical first step to addressing disparities and improving the COVID-related outcomes for BAME populations. We hope to give a voice to BAME individuals and families affected by COVID-19”.

“There are several potential outcomes that we hope to achieve, as our work will extend across multiple pandemic stages in developed countries. The systematic review will consolidate and assess evidence of help seeking accounts of people from BAME backgrounds with COVID-19, identify any gaps present and will guide decision makers on actions needed to close this gap. The preliminary findings show a scarcity of research studies examining COVID-19 and the experiences of BAME populations globally. The systematic review has also demonstrated the critical need for the mixed methods study, as this area of research has been neglected”.

“The research objectives for the mixed methods study would involve additional international collaborations. The findings arising from this study would fill gaps in health research towards identifying barriers that exist along care pathways for people from BAME backgrounds for both suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19, including marginalised communities. Data collected from the study will guide policy-making and inform healthcare leaders and stakeholders about safeguarding practices and other strategies for implementation within health systems in the respective developed countries. We also intend to create a safe, inclusive and transparent platform for people from BAME backgrounds and marginalised communities affected by COVID-19 to safely report any ongoing issues that may deter them from accessing COVID-19 test centres or treatment. This includes a mobile phone software application and a web-based platform. We are also considering other forms of reporting for marginalised communities that may not have access to the Internet. And lastly, our data will be useful towards guiding medically driven artificial intelligence in the surveillance, prognosis and management of COVID-19 disease”.

Dr King-Okoye said she is privileged to be working alongside a team of researchers that are highly skilled and equally passionate about seeking answers to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME populations. “I first met (virtually) with these researchers in May 2020 through the support of Crowdfight COVID-19 and shared my research ideas with them. They were very eager to support this project. In our society, researchers from BAME backgrounds receive very little support from funding bodies compared to those from other ethnicities due to discrimination, even when the project is ground breaking and has great potential to promote change. However, this does not deter me as I am fully committed to breaking the norms set by society. Amidst the challenges I was successful towards building strong bridges with international researchers of various races, ethnicities and nationalities”.

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Picture: Flamingo Images/Shutterstock.com

The researchers working on this project are representatives of the USA, UK, Canada and the European Union, and include: Dr Mary Alice Scott, New Mexico State University (NMSU), USA; Kyla Belisario, McMaster University, Canada; Dr Luke McGeoch, University of Bristol, UK; Dr Fiona McMaster, Innovia Technology, UK; Dr Darcie DeAngelo, Binghamton University, USA; Dr Catherine Rycroft, Director, Clinical Evidence Review, BresMed, UK; Dr Michael Ritter, Houghton College, USA; Talya Underwood, Anthos Communications Ltd, UK; Alexis Erlichman, Ministry of Health, Canada and Tomasz Chwalek and Anna Greszta, both researchers from Europe. When asked to comment on their work, these researchers were enthusiastic about their contribution to the study:

“I am honored to be part of this interdisciplinary, international group of researchers who are concerned about the inequitable effects of COVID-19 on marginalised communities. The work we do can help us to change health policy globally to move towards health equity, and that work is really exciting to be part of.” Dr Mary Alice Scott, NMSU, USA.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact upon BAME communities worldwide. There is a growing consensus that structural factors are likely to be influential in shaping the differences observed between ethnic and racial groups. This groundbreaking study, which brings together the experience and skills of academics from a range of professional backgrounds, will take a holistic approach to investigating why people of colour have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic.” Dr Luke McGeoch, University of Bristol, UK.

“It is exciting to take part in this important research that will hopefully not just identify the current health disparities among BAME populations at the height of the pandemic, but will extend across multiple pandemic stages such as inoculation and recovery from long-term side effects of the infection.” Kyla Belisario, McMaster University, Canada.

“We urgently need to understand why people from BAME backgrounds are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and this research will give a voice to the BAME experience in the ongoing pandemic. It’s a privilege to work alongside this team of multidisciplinary researchers to identify factors behind these disparities and improve outcomes for those from BAME groups.” Talya Underwood, a researcher from the UK.

“As an anthropologist, I am honoured to take part in this urgent and vital multidisciplinary project. Explorations of lived experiences open up great possibilities of finding truths both about how COVID-19 has influenced individuals’ lives, but also about the world we live in.” Anna Greszta, a researcher from Europe.

“COVID-19 has laid bare ethnic/racial disparities in not only access to healthcare, but also risk of infectious disease. Such disparities need urgent attention from interdisciplinary scholarship. This is an emergency that will only beget more emergencies until research applies itself to these inequities.” Dr Darcie DeAngelo, Binghamton University, USA.

“It’s great to be contributing to the interpretation and manuscript writing as part of this fantastic and highly motivated team.” Dr Catherine Rycroft, Director, Clinical Evidence Review, BresMed, UK.

“Studies of the lived experience of COVID-19 are an urgent need, not least in order to devise and refine public policies. Working in the team headed by Dr King-Okoye gives me a chance to take up the worldwide fight against the pestilence. For that end, I am happy to deploy the skills I received in my training as anthropologist and ethnographer.” Tomasz Chwalek, a researcher from Europe.

‘This is an important study that has brought together an unusual group of researchers from across the world. The voluntary nature of the project has capitalised on diverse perspectives and approaches from a wide range of organisations, and developed a way of working that has been efficient and useful in this new digital world’. Dr Fiona McMaster, Innovia Technology, UK.

“The current pandemic is reminding us of the importance of social determinants of health and the health consequences of racial inequalities. Understanding how these factors affect disease transmission and access to care is important for all who care about improving the health of us all. I’m excited to work with this interdisciplinary team to tackle such important questions.” Dr Michael Ritter, Houghton College, USA.

“It has been a pleasure to work with such a talented, diverse, and passionate team to better understand the experiences of BAME populations with COVID-19. I am grateful to contribute to this important research and hope it will be used to improve health equity.” Alexis Erlichman, Ministry of Health, Canada.

Dr King-Okoye also plans to include Indigenous populations and has initiated conversations with experts about recruiting people from Native American and Australian Aboriginal backgrounds. “It is critical that all minority ethnic groups are included in the study, as research among these populations has been neglected. I am very committed to identifying barriers that are contributing to the increasing numbers of deaths from COVID-19 among marginalised populations”.

Dr King-Okoye wishes to acknowledge support from Crowdfight COVID-19, the New Mexico State University and all the researchers involved in the study.

For further information about this study, please email michelle.king-okoye@igdore.org. The research team is actively seeking financial support and additional research collaborations to continue their work, and any offers of assistance will be gratefully received by Dr King-Okoye.

For more information about IGDORE, please email info@igdore.org

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