Jun 6, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Why the coronavirus pandemic is hitting minorities harder

Photo illustration of a protester wearing a mask that says, "I can't breathe."
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

The coronavirus’ disproportionate impact on black and Latino communities has become a defining part of the pandemic.

The big picture: That's a result of myriad longstanding inequities within the health care system and the American economy.

For Christina Henderson — who daily dons a mask and gloves to serve meals to hundreds of people in her predominantly black D.C. community — the statistics that flash across her television about the racial disparities in coronavirus cases are upsetting, but not surprising.

  • Henderson — better known as Ms. Tina by the neighbors and volunteers she sees every day — is the program director for the DC Dream Center, a nonprofit that serves the predominantly black neighborhoods of Southeast Washington, D.C.
  • “To hear people and their fear, that is — that’s hard,” she told me. “I’m 76 — I’ve dealt with this my entire life. No, I’m not surprised that they’re treated that way."

By the numbers: 75% of the people who have died from the coronavirus in D.C. were black. These deaths are disproportionately concentrated in the district’s poorest, blackest neighborhoods in southeast D.C.

  • In New York City, the death rate for black residents is 92.3 deaths per 100,000 people, for Latinos is 74.3 per 100,000 people, and for whites is 45.2 per 100,000 people.

These disparities reflect a slew of other, older disparities. Behind the shocked tone of so many headlines is a set of social and policy problems that are pretty familiar to health experts and even more familiar to the people they hurt.

  • Minorities have higher rates of medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to death and severe infection if they catch the coronavirus, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes and AIDS.
  • “When you go into the emergency room, you go into health care, black Americans do not get the same health care as white Americans,” Ms. Tina said.

Social factors — including adequate housing, access to transportation, income, social supports and employment — have been shown to affect people's physical health.

  • Disparities in each of those categories were already contributing to widespread health disparities even before the coronavirus, and they've now become risk factors for the virus, as well.
  • In 2018, 26% of black families, 27% of Latinos and and 16% of whites lived in multigenerational households, according to Pew Research Center.
  • “I realize it’s because of the types of jobs they do, how they live, because a lot of them live in very close quarters. A lot of people we deal with live in shelters,” Ms. Tina said.

Testing was also slow to ramp up in poorer communities. .

  • "When they went into the hospital, they were not treated with respect. And they were not tested, and they were sent back home," Ms. Tina said.

The bottom line: The racial disparities of the pandemic can't be separated from the racial disparities that black and Latino Americans face in their daily lives.

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