Public health relies on statistics split into ethnic groups in order to target what they do – but researchers say one of the most-used terms is so broad as to mask important issues 

It’s an area almost a third of Earth’s total land area, home to countless cultures, languages and peoples.

Yet here in New Zealand, those multitudes are swept up into one neat classification – Asian.

Dr Roshini Peiris-John, associate professor of population health at the University of Auckland, said this classification is harmfully reductive.

She is one of the lead researchers in the Youth19 survey, which asked more than 7000 students about everything from family life to sexual activity. Nearly 2000 of these respondents identified as Asian, capturing everyone with origins from Japan in the east and Afghanistan in the west.

But according to Peiris-John, the data showed significant differences between the lives of young people from different parts of Asia – differences she said are masked by the tendency of New Zealand to put them all in the same box.

“We are grouping people who come from a very large area,” she said. “Asian is not an ethnic category – it represents different cultures, languages and countries, as well as varying migration histories and socio-economic positions in New Zealand.”

She said lumping all Asians together makes them seem homogenous, making it harder for the healthcare system to effectively identify health needs and provide a targeted response.

The Youth19 survey found young people from South Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan experience higher rates of poverty, with 15 percent having parents who always worried about money for food.

Meanwhile, young people from East Asia reported higher mental health needs – with about a third experiencing significant depressive symptoms and about a fifth unable to access healthcare when needed.

When data for the overall Asian group is disaggregated we can see there are different problems for different groups of people, says Peiris-John: “If you look at the group as a whole, you miss seeing the difference.”

Statistics NZ provides sub-categories for ethnicity, with Asian comprising 47 different groups, but tends to combine information for analysis in order to show the ‘big picture’.

“Stats NZ recognises diversity within all ethnic groups,” a spokesperson said.

However, this diversity doesn’t always make it into the findings most people see. “Despite a preference for detail, sometimes it is necessary to combine the detailed information into groups in order to see the ‘big picture’ and produce useful statistics.”

Dr Roshini Peiris-John of the University of Auckland says labels covering entire sections of the population may serve to render certain health issues invisible. Photo: Supplied

According to Stats NZ, population projections by ethnicity can only be produced by combining ethnicities into groups.

“This partly reflects the small size of some ethnic groups… which makes it difficult to derive robust statistical measures like fertility and mortality,” the spokesperson said. “Sometimes it can partly reflect that there is a limit on what we can produce given limited resources.”

When Stats NZ went to the public for feedback in 2019, it received criticism about the breadth of their ethnic categories.

“The Level One categories are too broad,” said one respondent. “Asian is problematic as key differences become blurred when large categories are merged – for example, Chinese and Indian being aggregated into Asian, when each has their own characteristics.”

But Stats NZ is just one place in which decision-making organisations determine how we think about ethnicity. Areas such as the healthcare system base their interventions on their knowledge of the different outcomes of ethnic groups in New Zealand.

One example is the higher levels of diabetes and cardiovascular disease found among New Zealanders of Indian ethnicity compared to Chinese New Zealanders – a difference which may not be masked by the groups being aggregated.

The 2018 Census found 707,598 Kiwis identified as Asian – up from 471,708 in 2013.

And with the Asian population on the rise, the problems stemming from reductive ethnic categories can only be expected to grow accordingly.

“One in five young people are now identifying as Asian,” said Peiris-John.

“The beautiful thing about the growing number of young New Zealanders who name Asia as a place of origin is that they simply cannot be contained within the boxes that New Zealand often assigns to them,” writes Anya Satyanand, daughter of former governor-general Anand Satyanand, in the foreword to the report accompanying these findings from the Youth19 survey.

The report recommends the Ministry of Health avoids the homogenisation of data relating to Asian ethnic groups and develops a health strategy for Asian and ethnic minority health.

Stats NZ said it is currently consulting for the potential review of the standard classification for ethnicity.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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