ASU researchers investigate COVID-19 societal impacts

By

David Rozul

As the coronavirus continues to surge across the United States, there is little doubt that the pandemic has upended American life as we know it. From disrupting the way people move in the world, to exposing racial inequalities, to introducing new questions about surveillance and personal privacy in tracking the disease, the nation has been changed by this experience. 

Arizona State University researchers in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning are studying these changes in the American public and the future impacts COVID-19 can have on individual lives.

Uniquely positioned to support a national effort given the strengths of the department in disaster management, geospatial science and human-environment interaction, here are three research projects underway at ASU that aim to reveal how COVID-19 is impacting our lives and society: 

Racial dynamics and vulnerability of Asian Americans amid COVID-19 

In the face of inaccurate and harmful rhetoric used to describe COVID-19, such as “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus” or “Kung flu,” discrimination and hate crimes against Asian Americans in the U.S. have increased exponentially. 

Wei Li

Stop AAPI Hate, a national project that’s been tracking self-reported hostile anti-Asian incidents since late March — led by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, Chinese for Affirmative Action and San Francisco State University Asian American Studies — has received more than 1,800 reports since the project began, ranging from verbal abuse to physical violence.

A team of ASU researchers led by Wei Li, professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, seeks to analyze whether and how Asian Americans are disproportionately under more risk of racialized hate crimes during COVID-19.  

Li is co-principal investigator of the study and the recipient of an NSF-funded grant from the Social Science Extreme Events Research Network and the CONVERGE facility, the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Her subteam, which includes ASU PhD students Siqiao Xie and Yining Tan, analyzed Asian and Asian American social vulnerability, COVID-19 infections and deaths, and records of anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S. during the pandemic to reveal and visualize associations and geographical patterns. 

Yining Tan

“This research helps us better understand the alarming and disturbing divide in our society. Labeling the coronavirus as ‘Chinese virus’ by the administration further stimulates the xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment within our society,” said Tan, a PhD student in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and co-author of the study. “This evidence-based research reflects the deeply rooted systematic racism and helps inform future community actions.” 

Underpinning their research, Li, Xie and Tan customized the well-established CDC Social Vulnerability Index to differentiate for race and capture the social vulnerability of the Asian population across the nation.

While all communities have varying degrees of physical vulnerability to a disaster, it’s a community or social group’s social vulnerability that may determine how well it responds to or recovers from a disaster. 

The team’s research found significant racial disparities in social vulnerability among Asian Americans amid the pandemic and alignment with COVID-19 infections and deaths across the country. Additionally, they concluded that further data that disaggregates social vulnerability by ethnicity could help policymakers to address and assist vulnerable populations and areas. 

man's portrait

Siqiao Xie

“Asians are facing double victimization (victimization first at the hands of the oppressor then again when they turn to a system for relief) during the pandemic, especially in areas with high concentration of Asian population and relatively high vulnerability indices among the Asian population,” said Xie, a PhD student in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, and co-author of the study. “As much as we would love to reveal in this research, our analysis is rather limited due to data constraints and the drastic changing of the pandemic.”

The research points out that the coronavirus is far from an “equalizer” but rather affects different ethnicities and social groups disproportionately.

“Our work points out the importance of research to evidence-based policymaking. So far, only limited counties or cities nationwide released race- or occupational-specific COVID-19 data on infection and death, which are crucial for prevention and intervention,” said Li, who is also a professor with the School of Social Transformation. “Without accurate data, policymaking is without evidence-basis.” 

Efficacy and privacy concerns of digital contact tracing 

As the coronavirus remains a serious health threat in the U.S., public agencies across the nation are deciding whether leveraging digital contact tracing — using personal mobile tracking technologies like GPS or Bluetooth to see how COVID-19 it is spreading from person to person — will play a role in their pandemic response. 

Currently, limited published data is available about digital contact tracing technologies, the process in which they retrieve and store data, and how it may affect a user’s privacy. 

Peter Kedron 

Peter Kedron, assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and an expert in geospatial technology, seeks to change that. 

Kedron, the recipient of an NSF Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant, is leading a robust effort to provide the public with information about the diversity and viability of digital contact tracing technologies that will be used in the U.S. to fight COVID-19. 

Kedron and his team of researchers, which includes Drew Trgovac, instructor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, and eight undergraduate students, are working to catalog all the U.S. public agencies that are developing digital contact tracing systems, evaluating each technology, and determining in which environments the technology may be best used. Kedron and his team also plan to develop white papers describing in detail the differences of each technology. 

“What we’re trying to do is get a sense of what is being developed by whom for use where, and then once we have a sense of that, try to get our heads around if that system is going to be effective in that location,” Kedron said. “The reason we’re doing this is to inform the public debate about the use of these technologies and help us collectively decide if and how we want to adopt them.” 

Kedron says that this research has far-reaching impacts beyond just evaluating the effectiveness of digital technologies that track the spread of COVID-19: It also explores the bigger question of how new geospatial technologies will fit into the future of society. 

“As we’re rolling out these technologies, we’re implicitly accepting these things into our lives and there are questions about them that we need to be asking ourselves, ‘Do we want to do that?’ ‘Should we have a discussion about it before we do it?’ ‘Do we want to have systems by which they’re ratcheted down over time?’,” Kedron said. “There are tons of other related questions as well, so a larger part of the project is trying to provide information to have that public debate.” 

“This is actually a good opportunity as a society to think about what information we allow people to collect from us and how that actually changes the way we live our lives.” 

Kedron’s team will be sharing their data and results of their research on a public website this summer. The data will be updated as new technologies become available.

The future of transport: Will society return to 'normal'? 

COVID-19 has disrupted society and changed the way people move in the world, from commuting to the use of air travel, public transport and ridesharing services like Uber or Lyft. But the question remains, after COVID-19 is deemed no longer a threat and things return to "normal," how will this experience change our world? And will things go back to how they were before? 

Deborah Salon

Deborah Salon, associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is the recipient of an NSF RAPID grant. She is working with a team of ASU and the University of Illinois, Chicago researchers to explore how people’s experiences with COVID-19 have influenced their attitudes and behaviors toward transportation, and its potential impact on long-term decision making. 

Their project is one of only a handful of data-collection efforts across the nation that aims to understand how this health pandemic may have permanent effects on our lives and the society at large.

“Often planners and others figure that we have these big disruptive events, but then things just go back to the way they were before and they’re not actively planning for change,” Salon said. “It’s important to try and understand what those potential changes may be, to be ready for them and plan for them. These data can help with that.”   

Salon and her team are surveying a representative sample of more than 7,000 U.S. residents to understand how people are reacting to the pandemic, whether they expect these reactions to persist into the future, and why. The results aim to help government agencies and communities recover faster and become more resilient to future adverse events.

Initial survey results from over 1,000 respondents suggest that people will travel less for both personal and professional travel, more long-distance business will be done virtually, and there will be an evolution in more flexible work arrangements offered by employers and used by employees. Salon cautions that the initial analysis is not yet representative of the U.S. population but is still almost certainly indicative of larger trends.

“Public transit agencies may need to think about how to reinvent themselves if this has a very long-term impact,” Salon said. “I think it sounds narrow to say that we’re just looking at travel and transport, but actually, those decisions have huge reverberating effects on the economy.” 

Salon and her team will be providing public releases of the data they collect regularly throughout the project. You can take her survey and follow frequent updates at covidfuture.org