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As the public becomes increasingly aware of how health inequities affect people of color in the US, government and non-governmental institutions are being called upon to confront the devastating racial and ethnic data on COVID-19 patients—and to address the long-standing disparities that lie behind this data.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that while they comprise only 13% of the overall US population, 30 percent of COVID-19 patients are African-Americans. Details about the impact of the virus on people of color are just beginning to surface, but other early findings are startling. An April 15 column in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) observes that in the US, “the death rate for predominantly black counties is 6-fold higher than in predominantly white counties.” StatNews noted that “In Chicago, more than half of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly three-quarters of those who died are African American, yet they make up less than one-third of the city’s population. In Illinois as a whole, 43% of people with confirmed COVID-19 and 28% of those who died are African American, although they account for only 15% of the state’s population… In North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan, Connecticut, and Louisiana, there’s a similar imbalance in who has fallen ill and died.”
Why are people of color suffering disproportionately? There are many reasons, most of which arise from institutional and structural racism. Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, told NPR that many people of color are more vulnerable to the virus owing to the nature of their working conditions, as “Black workers are more likely to hold the kinds of jobs that cannot be done from home.” Also, as the abovementioned JAMA column remarks, “Being able to maintain social distancing while working from home, telecommuting, and accepting a furlough from work but indulging in the plethora of virtual social events are issues of privilege.”
The situation is in large part a result of long-standing health inequities that have rendered African-Americans particularly susceptible to a wide range of diseases and public health threats. Speaking to the Harvard Gazette, Epidemiologist Camara Phyllis Jones, a senior fellow at the Morehouse School of Medicine, points out that the health of people of color has been jeopardized by generations of deprivation and neglect, particularly from “segregation in terms of access to healthy foods, and to green space, and excess exposure to environmental hazards…” It has also been found that conditions such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes—all of which are frequently found afflictions in African-American communities—greatly increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.
In a recent interview with Boston’s WGBH, Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health and co-author of the textbook Public Health, discussed the issue of health inequities during the pandemic: “There are two levels where we’re seeing these inequities. We are seeing people of color and people in low-income groups disproportionately testing positive … And among people testing positive, they are affected at disproportionately higher rates than people who are white or are more privileged—and then, among those who do test positive, the rate of fatality is higher.”
Dr. Galea hopes that the toll COVID-19 is taking on people of color will finally spur action against health inequities. “What we are seeing is a set of problems that we have had for decades. It is not new that minorities and people of low income suffer much more illness than people of higher income and majority groups. There is a 15-year difference in life expectancy between the richest 1% and the poorest 1%. That’s an enormous difference. But the coronavirus is revealing things that had really been there already. Perhaps—if one were to think of a silver lining—this is a wake-up call, and our job collectively, should be to say, how can we remove these health gaps?”