Race and COVID-19

Marc Stier and Erica Freeman |

COVID-19 is like a chemical in which one dips a photographic print—it gradually reveals things you couldn’t see before. It is showing us deeply disturbing and unjust patterns of inequality in the life of our nation and state that too many of us ignore from day today.

We have said from the beginning of the pandemic that we’re concerned that the impact of COVID-19 on our health, as well as the impact of the necessary steps to fight the spread of the virus on our economic well-being, would be borne disproportionately by those who have lower incomes, who are Black and brown, who are immigrants, who are seniors, and who are disabled.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that COVID-19 is hitting Black and brown people harder than white people. We haven’t found good data for Pennsylvania, but data from other communities (thanks to Axios) points to the problem. And they show why the state must immediately take steps to give us a racial breakdown of COVID-19 victims—that is those who test positive for the virus, who are hospitalized because of it, and who die from it.

  • Black residents make up about 33% of Mecklenburg County, N.C., which includes Charlotte, but account for roughly 44% of its coronavirus cases, according to The Charlotte Observer.
  • Milwaukee County, Wis., is 26% Black—yet African Americans account for almost half of the coronavirus cases and 80% of the deaths according to ProPublica.
  • Black American death rates from COVID-19 are disproportionately high in Chicago, Louisiana, Milwaukee, and the Carolinas, per The New York Times. The hardest-hit neighborhoods in New York City have large immigrant populations, per the Wall Street Journal. 
  • Statewide data from Michigan show that African Americans make up a plurality of both cases (35%) and deaths (40%), but just 14% of the state’s population.

No one should be surprised by this data and what we are likely to find when we get similar evidence from Pennsylvania.

There are multiple reasons why Black Americans are more likely to contract COVID-19 and die from the havoc it wreaks on the body.

First, Black Americans are over-represented in much of the work that’s essential and therefore still being carried out in the midst of the pandemic. Look at our nurses, our bus drivers, our sanitation workers, our postal workers, our social workers. Black people are often doing those critical jobs. And in doing so, they are putting their lives at risk.

Second, COVID-19 is likely to be more dangerous for people who have underlying health conditions and we know that Black people have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

And we know why that is true.

The residents of Black communities are less likely to have access to affordable fresh food and vegetables and alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages.

They are less likely to have access to doctors and hospitals or to have health insurance.

They are more likely to live in substandard housing, in homes with a higher number of inhabitants, and to suffer from homelessness.

And racism, directly or indirectly, is responsible for all of these conditions.

Indeed, recent research has suggested that race has a dramatic impact on health for both children and adults even after controlling for its influence on income and opportunities to secure health care and housing. More and more, we are recognizing that the stress and anxiety of living in a racist world is responsible for disparities in health between Black and white people, even among those who are economically prosperous.

Disasters reveal the existing fractures in a society and cause them to break wide open. The COVID-19 epidemic is no exception. We can see the injustice in communities in who is getting sick and who is suffering from the economic recession we have had to create to save lives.

We must pay attention to what’s in front of our eyes and resolve to take every step necessary to reduce economic and racial inequality in our lives.

And we should do that not only by efforts to address racial inequities in the present but also by offering reparations for the damage done to Black people throughout our history. We could start right now by giving people who are risking their health and their lives on the front lines in the war against COVID-19 some kind of combat pay which might come as a credit against taxes or a modern-day version of the GI Bill of Rights. Such a policy would disproportionately, and justly, benefit Black Americans.

But first, to understand who is bearing the brunt of the fight against COVID-19 we need more data. The state must collect and release data about the incomes and race of those who are suffering from COVID-19, as well as those who are on the front lines in the fight against it.