A Wolrdwide Pandemic
As of December 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 800,000 people in the United States. This is almost the entire population of Charlotte, NC. Those numbers reflect a disproportionate number of Black, Latin, and Native American individuals. Why?
Chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, asthma, and chronic stress, tend to disproportionately affect populations of color. This is due to numerous factors, many of which can be linked to racism and inequality. Some examples that will be mentioned include: environmental racism, unequal treatment and assistance from the government, and increased exposure risks due to work requirements.
Race is not real on a biological level, but racism has a very real impact on people’s biological well-being.
Environmental Racism & COVID-19
Environmental racism is defined as disproportionate environmental hazards experienced by people of color to a greater degree and at a greater frequency. This is perpetuated by systems of inequality like redlining and other exclusionary practices. These practices group marginalized populations into places that are more likely to experience environmental hazards. Poor policy and lack of equitable government funding to areas with high proportions of people of color have led to inadequate waste management and subpar air quality in these communities – all of which directly impact these individuals' health and wellbeing. Read more about environmental racism and its effects here.
These factors lead to chronic health conditions that impact their body’s ability to fight diseases, like COVID-19. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness–it attacks the lungs, and upper respiratory system. Those who have asthma or other immunocompromising conditions (like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer) are less able to produce a strong immune response due to these other conditions. Chronic stress is also a condition that weakens one’s immune system and ability to fight illnesses. Racial discrimination is one contributing factor to chronic stress experienced by people of color. Immunocompromised individuals are more likely to be hospitalized and potentially die from COVID-19 than other members of the population.
A History of Distrust
Throughout the history of the United States, there have been several instances of government organizations directly targeting specific groups of people under the guise of providing assistance. One of the most infamous examples of this is the Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment. In 1933, the US Public Health Service claimed to offer treatment to 600 Black men for syphilis–a third of which did not have it. Even when penicillin was made available as a treatment, these men were still not given access to it to cure their disease. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the people and their families were notified about the misdeeds that led to the declining health, or even death, of the people who were supposed to be treated.
Histories of forced sterilizations are another example of state-sanctioned violence against populations of color. Native and Latin American women were targeted by scientific and government institutions for unethical experiments, in addition to racist population control tactics. You can read more about these examples here.
The legacy of these realities has left lasting impressions of distrust between populations of color and government and scientific institutions.
Even as the COVID-19 vaccines have become widely available, the scars of distrust have led to a large number of people who have turned down the opportunity to get vaccinated. This is known as vaccine hesitancy. Vaccine hesitancy and higher rates of chronic illnesses have contributed to a disproportionate number of deaths in communities of color. Even though African Americans only make up 13% of the United States population, they account for 34% of COVID-19 deaths according to research from Johns Hopkins University. COVID-19 has also disproportionately impacted the Native American community, which has experienced mortality rates that are 3.5 times higher than the general population.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health departments have released evolving information and guidelines as the understanding of COVID-19 has developed. The languages and ways in which information is communicated are likely a contributing factor in how the virus affected communities differently. A 2020 study concluded that not having information communicated in the language spoken by American Indian Reservation residents likely contributed to the spread of COVID-19. These findings can likely be expanded to include many other communities that do not use English as their primary language.
Misinformation has also contributed to public distrust, and therefore the spread of the virus. The science behind the COVID-19 pandemic has been politicized in the U.S. Misinformation from anti-vaccine groups and social media have obscured what is or is not true about the virus, masks, and vaccines. This has a significant negative impact on communities of color who may already be wary due to the history of government-permitted malpractice.
Who is Considered Essential?
An additional factor contributing to the racialized impact of COVID-19 is the exposure of essential workers. Essential workers are individuals whose jobs were not included in those that shifted to a ‘work from home’ model. Some of these jobs included healthcare workers, restaurant staff, and other low-paying service industry jobs. The impact on essential workers was significant. Many of these jobs are paid on an hourly basis, forcing individuals to choose between the risk of exposure to COVID-19 or a loss of wages.
A 2018 report from the Urban Institute noted that minorities made up a disproportionate number of essential workers. 33% of Black workers and 31% of Hispanic workers had jobs that were considered essential, whereas 26% of White worker’s jobs were considered essential. Many of these jobs do not include healthcare benefits, which further contributed to the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on these populations. Even the CDC acknowledges the recommendations and guidelines are not entirely effective in keeping everyone safe, and can even have negative impacts: “The goal of these mitigation activities is to minimize COVID-19 cases and deaths, but they can also have economic, social, and secondary health consequences…These inequities may become worse during the COVID-19 response, disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minority groups.” Many of these issues can be linked to a system built on historic racialized inequities in healthcare and wealth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact on everyone. Factors like environmental injustice, a history of harm condoned by the government and scientific institutions, and unequal access to resources have caused these negative impacts to be greater in some communities. This is due to a system that was not designed to serve all people equally.