Historic health disparities make COVID-19 more lethal for Blacks

Exposing the racial fault lines

Merdies Hayes Managing Editor | 5/22/2020, midnight
That was actor Idris Elba in late March, among the first Black..

“Black people, please, please, please understand that coronavirus, you can get it.”

That was actor Idris Elba in late March, among the first Black celebrities to announce he had tested positive for coronavirus. “There are so many stupid, ridiculous conspiracy theories about Black people not being able to get it,” Elba continued. “That’s dumb, stupid. All right?”

The quick spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the United States has exposed racial fault lines, with early data showing that African-Americans are more likely to die from the disease than White Americans. The data has been piecemeal, with only some states and counties breaking down COVID-19 cases and outcomes by race. But even without nationwide data, the numbers are stark. Where race data has come in, by mid-April, African-Americans have accounted roughly 42 percent of COVID-19 deaths while representing only 13 percent of the nation’s population.

Blacks more likely to be exposed

African-Americans are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed this startling news in a study published one month ago “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.” The study revealed to the larger public what most Black people had known for generations: Jobs like caregivers, cashiers, postal workers, sanitation workers and public transit employees are primarily filled by African-Americans. By early April, 35 percent of people who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 were African-American.

In the workforce prior to the shutdown, almost 30 percent of employed African-Americans worked in the education and health services industries, and 10 percent in the retail industry, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. African-Americans are less likely than employed people in general to work in professional and businesses services—the type of jobs more amenable to telecommuting.

Because a significant percentage of Black persons rely on public transit—about 34 percent according to a 2017 report conducted by the Pew Research Center—continued use of buses and/or trains during the pandemic may bring African-Americans into greater contact with infected persons.

Also, a disproportionately high percentage of African-Americans may live in places that could increase their exposure. Census data from January show that only 44 percent of African-Americans own their own home, compared with almost 74 percent of White persons. When considering a family residing in a crowded inner-city apartment building, that scenario only increases the chance of one or more persons from that Black family contracting coronavirus.

Underlying health conditions

African-Americans have a higher incidence of underlying health conditions. Among those at highest risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19 are persons suffering from hypertension/heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and asthma. The American Heart Association notes that more than 40 percent of African-Americans have high blood pressure—among the highest rates in the world. Similarly, African-Americans tend to have much higher rates of diabetes than any other ethnic group in the nation.

Another aspect of the heightened risk has to do with African-American’s disproportionate exposure to air pollution. With the urgency to improve the metrics of climate change, such pollution has been linked to chronic health problems among Black persons including asthma, obesity and cardiovascular disease.