Illinois Arab Americans Will Now Be Counted When Receiving Their COVID-19 Vaccines
By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer
The issue of representation continues to be a much-sought-after concept to truly feel that one belongs in the United States. Along with feelings of belonging, representation also allows for increased knowledge of how diseases potentially impact a certain population differently than other groups. For instance, Arab Americans have long sought the right to be represented in the United States Census, and unfortunately, due to discriminatory politics, they have still not yet achieved the distinction of having a ‘Middle East North Africa’ (MENA) or an Arab designation put on the Census and other forms. However, things are changing for Arab Americans in the State of Illinois as they will now be counted under a newly-created MENA designation when they receive their COVID-19 vaccinations.
This article will explore the background of how this MENA designation came into play through the hard work of local Arab American activists, and it also details how this notion of progress though it is ever so small illustrates how important representation is especially when it comes to health, safety, research, access to healthcare, and wellness.
In early 2021, CBS 2 Chicago, the local news affiliate of CBS did some investigative reporting to determine that Arab Americans were not being counted when they received their COVID-19 vaccinations nor was there a designation when Arab Americans were hospitalized. In their article, CBS 2 reporters interviewed “Itedal Shalabi and Nareman Taha who are co-founders of the organization, Arab American Family Services (AAFS) and asked how the two women felt when they received their vaccines and had to mark down ‘white, Asian, or other,’ and Taha said ‘it hurts, it’s frustrating, it tells you that you don’t exist.’”
This negative experience led the two women to advocate for the creation of either a Middle East North Africa (MENA) or Arab designation from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). Shalabi and Taha reached out to CBS 2 Chicago, and in April 2021, the IDPH announced that the MENA category was added to the “department’s web-based application system, I-CARE for providers to enter the MENA data for vaccinations directly into the system.” After much hard work and advocacy, CBS 2 Chicago, informed the women of their success and wrote a story about it in August 2021.
Why Representation Matters for Healthcare and Wellness:
The very small step of adding a MENA category on the health forms for receiving a vaccine is vitally important to the healthcare community because it allows medical professionals and researchers to be informed about what specific needs for vaccination are facing the Arab American community. Additionally, if the MENA category is expanded into other healthcare forms eventually, it also allows physicians, nurses, medical and public health professionals to analyze whether COVID-19 affects Arab Americans differently than in other populations and whether this community is getting proper access to healthcare in hospitals and wellness programs.
In the article from CBS 2 Chicago, “Arab American Family Services (AAFS) said that before the addition of the MENA category from IDPH that it made it difficult for Arab American community groups to get immediate COVID-19 funding for resources and education, especially in regards to them being the Arabic language.”
Itedal Shalabi, one of the co-founders of AAFS said that when vaccines were first being offered in early 2021, “we wanted to make sure the vaccine was in our community,” but due to the previous lack of representation, Arab Americans were being affected by COVID-19 in unknown ways. Representation is so critically important because it provides demographic information of who are receiving vaccines, who are getting sick (if the category becomes further expanded), and these statistics allow for the larger allocation of resources to keep the community safe, healthy, happy, and thriving.
Arab Americans will now be counted when they receive their COVID-19 vaccine in the State of Illinois. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has created a Middle East North Africa (MENA) category to write down on the public health forms that people have to fill out when they receive a vaccine. This is a very small step in the right direction of representation for Arab Americans, but there is still more work to be done. As of this writing, this MENA category has not yet been added routine health forms in the state, and Arab Americans are still fighting for representation on the US Census.
But at least in the continued fight against COVID-19, Arab Americans will now be counted when they get their vaccinations which will also allow for the IDPH and Illinois government to determine how to allocate health and vaccination resources to combat the virus and protect the community. Finally, this step of being counted when receiving vaccinations is a small example of why representation matters!
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