Arkansas’s Pacific Islanders Harder Hit by Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has hit one community of Arkansans harder than any other so far: Pacific Islanders.

The Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese (ACOM) released a new analysis on Friday showing that the Pacific Islander community – mostly Marshallese families in Arkansas – have much higher rates of infection than any other racial or ethnic group in the state. An analysis of the state numbers by Dr. Ninez Ponce, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, showed that Pacific Islanders have 4.5 times higher case rates and death rates compared to the overall rates in Arkansas.

Source: Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, analysis by Dr. Ninez Ponce with data from Arkansas Department of Health

The analyzed data showed an infection rate of 42.6 cases per 10,000 in the Pacific Islander community, compared to 25.9 in the Black community, 7.8 in the White community and 11.6 among Arkansans overall. The case numbers were compared to population data in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey. The data in Dr. Ponce’s analysis were through May 9, but the disparity in infection rates, as reported here by the Arkansas Department of Health, has grown even larger since then.

The Marshallese community already suffers disproportionately from a number of underlying health conditions that make COVID-19 more deadly, including obesity and diabetes. According ACOM’s press release, Arkansans of Marshallese descent also are more likely to work in essential jobs, including meat processing, that keep them in contact with people who may spread the virus.

Some of the long-term disparities Marshallese residents face are ones we can address through public policy. For example, Marshallese-born adults are barred under federal law from seeking insurance coverage through Medicaid, even though they’re lawfully residing and working in the United States and paying taxes. The HEROES Act, passed Friday by the U.S. House of Representatives, would correct that injustice by allowing Marshallese and other Compact of Free Association migrants to be covered under Medicaid-funded insurance. (The bill is now headed to the Senate, where it faces considerable opposition based on a variety of proposals included in it.)

ACOM also recently conducted its own community needs assessment in partnership with the Asian American Pacific Islander American Health Forum. They asked Marshallese residents a series of questions, and more than 400 people responded.

The community assessment showed:

  • 82 percent of respondents reported they have essential workers in the household;
  • 51 percent have household members with diabetes, obesity or high blood pressure;
  • 15 percent have household members who are 65 years or older.

Respondents reported that their top five needs during the pandemic were: rent and utilities, personal protective equipment (especially masks), food, health insurance and stronger broadband/Internet access.

Meanwhile, members of the Marshallese community are working together to meet those needs. ACOM, the Marshallese Educational Initiative and other organizations are part of the Marshallse COVID-19 Task Force. They’re organizing mask giveaways and food drives and working to ensure families are aware of the pandemic and how to prevent the spread.

“We must ensure vulnerable groups like the Marshall Islanders are provided with resources, whether it is access to testing, tracing, isolation or social support,” said Melisa Laelan, founding executive director of ACOM.

We hope that state agency officials and state  policymakers will take additional steps to ensure that resources are made available to address this growing health crisis in the Marshallese community.

Read this blog post to learn how the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black Arkansans.