Coronavirus and Census 2020: A new risk


Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the national count could be seriously affected.

By Yamily Habib

The rapid development of the facts regarding the global coronavirus pandemic has forced the governments of more than 140 countries to improvise in, well, practically everything.

In the United States, for example, measures to prevent and control the increase in cases have varied from state to state, ranging from the timid suspension of some events to the massive closure of facilities.

But the lack of a solid contingency and control plan –especially in a country whose neoliberal health system does not allow many options– is increasingly evident.

To quote New York Times columnist Ellen Barry, what is being seen nationally is the development of a public health care system, “American style.”

The decoupling of federal power decisions from state government policies has left “dizzying patchwork of local decision-making, as the largest quarantine in recent American history occurred in a juddering, piecemeal fashion,” Barry explains.

“Although this country has a central public authority for handling infectious disease — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the federal agency cannot get involved on the ground unless invited by states or municipalities,” she added.

Now, if that’s the situation in the agencies directly involved in managing the epidemic, the other agencies affected by the public measures are likely to be facing similarly complicated situations.

Among them are those in charge of the 2020 Census.

After more than a year of legal battles over trying to introduce the citizenship question into the 2020 Census, the Trump Administration now faces a much bigger challenge: assuring citizens that they will be accurately counted.

“We must fulfill our constitutional obligation to deliver the 2020 Census counts to the President of the United States on schedule, and we must adhere to our core task of counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” the Census Bureau said in an official statement, assuring that “it has never been easier” to answer the questions from home, whether online, by phone or by mail.

“We are encouraging everyone to respond online as soon as you receive your invitation with the provided instructions to go online,” it added. “Instructions include the web address for the online questionnaire in English as well as where to respond online in 12 additional languages – ensuring over 99% of U.S. households can respond online in their preferred language.”

Similarly, and as reported by NPR, the Bureau has decided to delay the first door-to-door rounds of workers at least until the first few weeks of April, and the confirmation of the spread of infection by one of its officials has worsened citizens’ fears.

If communities already frequently overlooked or undercounted by the Bureau –such as Hispanics and African Americans– were already distrustful of the system, now opening the doors to a stranger in the midst of a pandemic can be far more alienating.

“The coronavirus not only could hit census-takers and the people they are trying to tally, but could further imperil a census already facing enormous challenges to an accurate count,” explains the New York Times, adding that the urgency of restructuring long-planned campaigns could prevent an adequate count and communities from getting the right federal dollars and political representation.