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New CDC data shows Covid-19 is affecting African Americans at exceptionally high rates

It underscores a broader trend showing that coronavirus isn’t an equalizer but a magnifier of inequality.

Even though African Americans make up 13 percent of the US population, they account for 30 percent of the country’s Covid-19 patients.
Scott Heins/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new, preliminary nationwide data on Friday, that revealed 30 percent of Covid-19 patients are African American, even though African Americans make up around 13 percent of the population of the United States.

The federal data is far from complete — it’s missing racial information on 75 percent of patients in its database. But it’s consistent with other data on race and Covid-19.

The striking overrepresentation of African Americans among confirmed Covid-19 cases is also seen in what state-by-state data is available, and it underscores that, far from being an “equalizer,” the coronavirus pandemic is amplifying preexisting social inequities tied to race, class, and access to the health care system.

The Associated Press reports that based on available state and local data, about a third of US Covid-19 fatalities are of African Americans — although in the areas analyzed, only about 14 percent of the population was African American. About half of US states, that together represent under 20 percent of cases nationwide, haven’t released demographic data on deaths, according to the AP.

And state-by-state data compiled by Mother Jones shows wide disparities in both infections and fatalities among people of color. In Wisconsin, for example, African Americans represent 6 percent of the population, but nearly 40 percent of Covid-19 fatalities.

As Vox’s Dylan Scott pointed out in his analysis of how coronavirus has taken a hugely disproportionate toll on people of color, this trend is vividly on display in the epicenter of the American coronavirus crisis: New York. “Black New Yorkers are dying at twice the rate of their white peers; Latinos in the city are also succumbing to the virus at a much higher rate than white or Asian New Yorkers. The same trends can be seen in infection and hospitalization rates, too,” Scott writes. The disparities are easy to see in this chart from the city’s health department:

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

Coronavirus isn’t a great equalizer — it’s laying bare our inequities

Anyone can be infected with coronavirus, but certain populations are more vulnerable to both contracting and experiencing severe cases of it. As Scott explained, that’s because exposure to the spread of the virus and the ability to cope with it are a function of things like access to health care and types of jobs that tend to vary based on race:

[T]here are the more acute reasons (black and Latino people are being put at risk more in their day-to-day lives) and then there are the structural reasons (long-standing economic and health disparities between white people and people of color).

On the first, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in NYC is a useful and disturbing example. As the New York Times reported last week, bus and subway workers have been hit hard by the coronavirus: 41 dead and more than 6,000 either diagnosed with Covid-19 or self-quarantining because they have symptoms that suggest an infection, as of April 8.

Who works for the MTA? Black people and Latinos. They account for more than 60 percent of the agency’s workforce in New York City, according to estimates from 2016.

US Surgeon General Jerome Adams stirred controversy last week when he implied minority Covid-19 deaths were a matter of personal responsibility rather than part of an ongoing crisis public health experts have said they are struggling to control.

He said during April 10’s White House coronavirus briefing that communities of color “are not helpless” in the face of the virus, and said that in addition to observing social distancing and proper hygiene, they should “avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.”

Adams’s comments garnered strong criticism from progressive commentators because that kind of rhetoric has usually not been targeted at general audiences or white communities, and it appeared to hold people of color to a uniquely high bar.

What Adams spent less time discussing, however, was how susceptibility to coronavirus is shaped by a long history of institutional racism and economic inequity in America. As Vox’s Anna North has explained:

[B]lack Americans are more likely to have underlying conditions because of widespread racism and inequality, experts say. Many differences in health outcomes in America are “produced by access to things like adequate time to prepare healthy foods at home” and “adequate money to not be working three shifts and have really high stress levels,” Lynch said — access that white people are just more likely to have. As [Fabiola] Cineas notes, 22 percent of black Americans lived in poverty in 2018, compared with 9 percent of white Americans.

Beyond poverty, a number of factors contribute to poor health among black people, from racism in medical settings to the physical health effects of discrimination. Redlining and other forms of housing discrimination have made black Americans more likely to live in neighborhoods affected by environmental contamination, which federal and state officials have been slow to respond to, in turn raising rates of chronic illness.

This makes it clear that policy choices have a huge role to play in determining which people are least protected from the pandemic — and that making changes to these policies will be key in protecting those most vulnerable to threats like Covid-19.

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