Coronavirus Updates

April 7, 2020

Why African Americans are dying at higher rates from COVID-19

The new coronavirus isn’t picky about who it infects — so why does data emerging from some states suggest that African Americans are bearing the brunt?

Experts say the community is disproportionately impacted by underlying conditions linked to poverty, and often faces challenges in accessing testing and health care.

“We know that blacks are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, lung disease,” the nation’s top doctor, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, told CBS News on Tuesday.

These chronic illnesses can lead to more serious forms of the COVID-19 disease.

Adams, who is himself black and has high blood pressure and asthma, added: “I represent that legacy of growing up poor and black in America.

“And I, and many black Americans, are at higher risk for COVID.”

– Emerging trend –
There is no nationwide data available on COVID-19 cases by race, but a familiar pattern of over-representation by black Americans has emerged in states or jurisdictions that are sharing the information.

Sixty-eight percent of coronavirus deaths in Chicago have been among African Americans, who make up just 30 percent of the city’s population.

“Those numbers take your breath away,” the city’s mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday at a coronavirus briefing. “This is a call to action for all of us.”

The trend is repeated in North Carolina, Louisiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and the capital Washington.

Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told AFP the issue was also linked to social class, with black people more likely to work jobs deemed essential that expose them to potential infection.

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“That population is more public facing,” he said. “More bus drivers, more people taking public transportation to work, more people providing services in nursing homes, more folks working in grocery stores.”

– Access to care –
The issue is also likely exacerbated by pre-existing prejudice that black people face in the medical system.

“Like with any illness or pain, African Americans are less likely to have their symptoms believed by those in health care due to implicit bias,” said Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Riverside.

That is borne out by several studies that have found black people’s pain is less likely to be investigated or treated than their white counterparts.

There are already fears that, as historically underserved communities, black people and other groups like Latinos will have less access to testing, which in turn is vital in getting early treatment.

A civil rights group has written to health secretary Alex Azar, calling on him to “release daily racial and ethnic demographic data related to COVID-19 testing, disease burden and patient outcomes.”

This, said Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, was necessary to ensure a robust public health response, and to ensure care and testing wasn’t being administered in a discriminatory manner.

The group said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was already collecting the information but deliberately withholding it.

Writing in the online magazine Slate, Uche Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity, said high levels of diabetes, hypertension and asthma among black people were “directly linked to structural racism.”

“We’re already very vulnerable,” she said. “When you add this pandemic on top of us, we’re more likely to be sicker when we present.

“And then we have to worry about whether or not we’re going to receive unbiased care.”