Updated: Mar 19
An early Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report suggested that death rates among Black/African American persons (92.3 deaths per 100,000 population) and Hispanic/Latino persons (74.3) were substantially higher than that of white (45.2) or Asian (34.5) persons.
An analysis from Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) showed that in the majority of states reporting data that include race and ethnicity, black Americans account for a higher share of confirmed cases and deaths compared to their share of the total population. For example, in Chicago, as of early April 2020, 72% of people who died of coronavirus were black, while they are only one-third of the city’s population.
Native Americans have also been disproportionately affected as the KFF analysis shows that they make up more than 33 percent of cases in New Mexico but are only 9 percent of the state’s population. In Arizona, Native Americans account for 7 percent of cases and 21 percent of deaths, but comprise only 4 percent of the state’s population.
Why the difference? It’s not because the coronavirus is racist of course. Leading health experts point to underlying medical conditions, including heart disease and diabetes which weaken lungs and immune systems, as one explanation for why minority populations are seeing high rates of sickness and death from COVID-19. These conditions are more common in Black, Hispanic and Native Americans and people with pre-existing health conditions are more likely to develop severe Covid-19 symptoms.
One major problem is that Native Americans, Hispanic Americans and African Americans are less likely than whites and Asian Americans to have health insurance making them more reluctant to seek medical help when they need it. Compared to whites, Hispanics are almost 3 times as likely to be uninsured, and African Americans are almost twice as likely not to have insurance. As a result, Blacks were more likely than whites to report not being able to see a doctor in the past year because they couldn’t afford to.
In addition, national reports show even when they do go to the doctor, some minority groups are taken less seriously by medical professionals when they try to get care. Nationally, doctors have been less likely to refer African Americans for COVID-19 tests than other racial groups, even when there are similar signs of infection.
Another issue is that a higher percentage of ethnic-minority households in America live near incinerators and landfills, and schools with high proportions of minority students are located near highways and industrial sites. This obviously increases vulnerability to lung-inflaming conditions like Covid-19.
Racism itself can lead to an accumulation of stresses such as a constant fear of being harassed or even killed by law enforcement such as in the George Floyd case. The frequent secretion of stress hormones can lower resistance and make anyone more vulnerable to disease.
Work environment can also affect susceptibility to COVID-19. In the US, farmworkers are often undocumented migrants from Mexico and Latin America with little control over safe working conditions. It can be difficult to ensure physical distancing in the fields, isolation in the farmworker camps, or access to medical facilities. Farmworkers in the US have high rates of diabetes and pesticide exposure, stressing their immune systems and thus making them more vulnerable to infectious diseases.
A disproportionately high number of minorities work in low-wage “essential services” like food services, the transportation sector and health care. They cannot work from home and these jobs put workers in close contact with others.
Workers without paid sick leave might be more likely to continue to work even when they are ill. This can increase workers exposure to others who may have COVID-19, or, in turn, expose others them if they themselves have COVID-19. Coincidentally, Hispanic workers have lower rates of access to paid leave than white non-Hispanic workers.
Some reasons we might never have considered may cause some people to be less likely to take preventative behavior like wearing masks. For instance, Black men in the U.S. have reported being uncomfortable wearing masks in public since racial profiling might make them more likely to be seen as a criminal or dangerous, rather than as simply protecting their own health.
Housing can be a factor in catching the coronavirus. Members of racial and ethnic minorities may be more likely to live in densely populated areas because of institutional racism such as residential housing segregation. As a result, people who live in densely populated areas may find it more difficult to practice prevention measures such as social distancing.
In addition, multi-generational households tend to be more common among some racial and ethnic minority families, so may find it difficult to take precautions to protect older family members or isolate those who are sick, if space in the household is limited.
So what can be done to reduce the disproportionately high coronavirus infection and death rate for minorities? Obviously, improving the socio-economic position and reducing inherent stress of people of color is one broad goal. More specially, community and religious institutions can be used to educate, empower and encourage individuals to take actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
While the coronavirus isn’t specifically targeting Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, our institutional racism makes them more vulnerable to its effects. Until we can eliminate discrimination, minorities in America will always be more negatively impacted by events such as COVID-19.