Black Americans Face Higher Rates of Coronavirus Infection

Riders on the New York City subway wear face masks. African Americans are more likely to live in dense urban areas that rely on public transportation.

Riders on the New York City subway wear face masks. African Americans are more likely to live in dense urban areas that rely on public transportation. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer


Connecting state and local government leaders

Citing initial reports that show a disproportionate impact on African Americans, lawmakers from across the country say more health departments and states need to publish race data on cases.

Though the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, the impact of the pandemic is not spread equally across all communities. Early data from the few states and cities that started publishing the race of infected people shows that the toll of Covid-19 is falling disproportionately on black Americans. 

In places where race data is available, the numbers tell a clear story. As of Tuesday morning, black residents of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin account for 46% of the roughly 1,300 confirmed cases and 71% of the 49 deaths—even though the county’s population is only 26% black. In Illinois, black residents make up 42% of the 309 coronavirus-related deaths, though they are only 14% of the state’s population. North Carolina, Louisiana, and Michigan all have similar numbers.

But in most other places, determining the racial breakdown of the Covid-19 pandemic is done by guesswork. The vast majority of state, city, and county health departments are not releasing race data on cases or deaths, prompting calls for change from lawmakers, civil rights groups, medical professionals, and even the United Nations.

Though more states and cities have added race to their coronavirus tracking systems in the past 24 hours, too many aren’t making this kind of information available, said Danyelle Solomon, vice president of the Race and Ethnicity Policy Program at the Center for American Progress. “Unfortunately, the data we have right now is not universal. But it’s clear we’re seeing a disproportionate impact on people of color, specifically black Americans.”

In Maryland, which started reporting race data on Tuesday, state and local officials pushed for the case data by race so that they can more clearly understand where to direct resources. In Baltimore, City Council President Brandon Scott said that such information was necessary because the city is so highly segregated that "your zip code determines health outcomes.” 

Federal lawmakers have similarly called on national data gathering efforts to include race. Led by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts, five Democratic lawmakers wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services on March 27 demanding that the CDC, which is currently only releasing the location and age data on confirmed cases, to begin collecting and publishing information about the race of patients. “It is critical that the federal government make a concerted effort to account for existing racial disparities in health care access and how persistent inequities may exacerbate these disparities in the weeks and months to come as our nation responds to this global health pandemic,” the lawmakers wrote. “We urge you not to delay collecting this vital information.”

Solomon said she supports a federal effort to collect data, but added that lawmakers, the press, and policy experts need to make sure that the data is used for the correct purposes. “I think the concern is, looking back at past epidemics, the disproportionate impact on people of color is blamed on their personal choices,” she said. “We have to be clear that people of color are facing an impact not because of personal choices they made but because of the system in which they sit.”

The reasons why African Americans are catching and dying from coronavirus at higher rates are complex and often the result of ingrained structural inequalities, explained Solomon. Black Americans are more likely to live in densely concentrated areas that make social distancing difficult, disproportionately represented in the service industry and were hit hard by recent layoffs, and in some places have been less likely to be taken seriously and be tested when they developed Covid-19 symptoms, Solomon said. “This pandemic, like most emergencies, is a spotlight on inequality,” Solomon said. “It’s exacerbating all the underlying disparities that people have been dealing with since the country's inception.”

Communities of color also have higher rates of the chronic conditions that make coronavirus more deadly, including asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Some of these conditions are caused by a legacy of housing segregation that sectioned African American homeowners and renters into areas replete with environmental waste and polluting industries, and others are exacerbated by the lasting economic disenfranchisement that has led to worse health outcomes for African Americans.

When African Americans do get sick, recovery itself can be more difficult. Black communities are more likely to exist in food deserts and pharmacy deserts, meaning groceries and medication are hard to obtain in ordinary times, let alone during a pandemic when public transit service is limited and considered dangerous. African American and Hispanic people, who have also been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus, are less likely to be insured and, therefore, have easy access to well-resourced hospitals.

The challenge with confronting structural inequalities like food deserts and wealth inequality, however, is that they can’t be easily fixed by the relatively speedy tactics that policymakers have used so far to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the short term, Solomon said that black communities will need cash, likely more than the money already allocated in the recent federal stimulus package, widespread and easily accessible testing and treatment if they are sick, eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, and postponed debt payments. Small businesses run by people of color that are staples in their communities, like bodegas and corner stores, will need assistance to keep their doors open. 

But many hope that the wealth and racial disparities that have made this pandemic worse for certain communities will do more than inspire short-term fixes. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, when announcing the race data for her city on Monday, said that the numbers “take your breath away” and should create “a call-to-action moment for all of us.” Solomon said it’s more than a call, it’s “a scream.”

“We need to deal with these disparities because if we don’t we’ll only see inequality continue to grow,” she said. “People of color are the growing majority of Americans. We need to make sure our people aren’t dying. We need to put them on better footing to weather the next storm.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route FIfty.

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