The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, many people have said. It can infect anyone regardless of their gender, economic status, or race. But given the long history of racial inequalities in many countries, the pandemic will surely hit minority groups the hardest, particularly the black community. This crisis is the latest example of how racial dynamics play out in complex ways.
Coronavirus Cases Among African Americans
Some of the largest disparities due to the pandemic have involved race and ethnicity. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that while African Americans make up around 13% of the population in the US, they represent 30% of COVID-19 patients. Some local communities in the country have found a similar pattern in their data. Research from Johns Hopkins University, for instance, showed that black people account for 34% of COVID-19 deaths among 26 states reporting racial data.
Brookings.edu, an American research group, reported that Washington, D.C. consists of 46% of black people but make up 62.5% of COVID-19 fatalities. In Michigan, the community accounts for nearly 85% of the state's COVID-19 deaths. Black residents in Chicago make up more than half of all cases and about 70% of those who have died of the disease. As of the first week of April, about 70% of people who’ve died of COVID-19 in Louisiana are African American. In the UK, of the first 2,249 patients with confirmed Covid-19, 35% were non-white.
Experts said that the disproportionate toll can be partially explained by the high prevalence of African Americans to obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Several factors also make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, including genetic ones. Renã Robinson, a professor of chemistry who researches chronic disease at Vanderbilt University, said that previous studies revealed that African Americans have genetic risk factors that make them more salt-sensitive. This increases the likelihood of high blood pressure, which, in turn, is linked to more serious forms of COVID-19.
According to Scientific American, an American popular science magazine, black Americans will be more vulnerable to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because of several manifestations of structural racism, including lack of access to testing, a higher chronic disease burden, and racial bias within health care institutions. For instance, the limited availability of COVID-19 testings in the community will make the virus likely to infect more. Some experts believe that to ensure better health outcomes in this pandemic, governments should address underlying racial injustices and inequalities.
“When you look at [COVID-19] that particularly is virulent for persons who have higher rates of disease, that’s exactly the picture of African Americans. But it’s not their genes. It’s the social conditions that we have created. I hope this is a wake-up call for America,” David Williams, a professor of public health at Harvard whose research has examined how race and class affect health, said.
The black community isn’t only vulnerable to the virus itself but also its impacts. Recent reports revealed that the virus has led 26 million Americans to file for unemployment. While there are no recent statistics of the unemployment figures broken down by race, economists believe that black Americans will probably suffer the most dramatic consequences of the looming recession. Considering the fact that the community’s unemployment rate was almost twice the national rate even before the pandemic hit, economists may not be wrong.
According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, when the overall unemployment rate was 3.5%, the black unemployment rate was 5.8%. On the other hand, the white unemployment rate was 3.1%. Employment rates for the black community are never good during a pandemic or crisis. During the Great Recession, the overall unemployment rate peaked at 9.6% in 2010; for black Americans, it was 16%.
“The usual relationship that we see between the national unemployment rate and the black unemployment rate is typically really close to a two to one. Whatever is being projected for the national unemployment rate, in most instances, we expect to see something close to twice that for black Americans,” Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity, and the economy, said.
William Rodgers, the former chief economist at the US Department of Labor, recently estimated that the unemployment rate for African Americans may have reached 19% in March. “The reason why African Americans bear the brunt of downturns more is that when firing decisions start to occur the least educated and those with the least experience tend to be let go first. There is also continued discrimination in the workplace,” Rodgers said.
As of now, there’s been no specific research relating to COVID-19 cases to police violence. However, Denise Herd, a professor at the School of Public Health, said that there’s a clear link between chronic stress caused by persistent police-related trauma diseases like asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, leading to COVID-19 mortality. Previous studies revealed that black people are more likely to face poor treatment from law enforcement, thus, explaining why they have higher infection and mortality rates in this pandemic.
"There are levels of chronic stress associated with living in an environment that has more police violence, and the threat of that force on its residents," Herd said.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the use of so-called Terry stops, or stop-and-frisk policies, have allowed police officers to question, search or detain people they suspect are involved in criminal activity, particularly a person who belongs to the black community. This creates chronic stress that lowers a person's resistance to disease. Data from the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that 90% of pedestrians stopped were either black or Latino. And, 20% of the time, police used physical force.
Studies have also found that forms of discrimination and unfair treatment by law enforcement are linked with higher rates of disease in black communities. "Those mental health issues often go untreated in African American communities and can lead to diseases that make them more compromised to COVID-19," Herd said.