What Do Racial Health Disparities Look Like During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

To date, the novel coronavirus has taken the lives of over 115,000 people in the United States. This nationwide burden has weighed disproportionately on communities of color, specifically Black and Latinx populations. While the Black population comprises 13% of the U.S. population, the population accounts for roughly 22% of documented coronavirus cases. Within the Black population, the mortality rate of the novel coronavirus is also more than two times the rate of white individuals. In certain states, the mortality rate for the Black population is even higher; 3-4 times the rate of the white mortality rate. As we confront police brutality and engage with the Black Lives Matter movement, it is crucial that we acknowledge the ways that pandemics such as coronavirus are compounded by racism at both structural and individual levels.

There is a large body of evidence suggesting that racism and discrimination contribute to patients’ “chronic diseases, premature deaths, and unequal health outcomes.” We know that psychological stress can increase the severity of physical health problems. Experiencing racism across one’s lifetime can contribute to disrupted cortisol levels, as repeated encounters with racism and discrimination undoubtedly contribute to one’s stress levels.

According to the CDC, the disproportionate burden of coronavirus felt by communities of color can be attributed to numerous structural factors. Such factors include, but are not limited to: working conditions for essential workers, a lack of paid sick leave, and uninsurance. About a quarter of the Latinx and Black populations in the United States are employed in the service industry, compared to 16% of the White population. It is unlikely that those working in service industry jobs would be able to practice social distancing to the extent of individuals working in other sectors. Those working in service jobs may not have access to paid sick leave, which may ultimately increase their risk of transmitting COVID-19 to people in their workplace. With regard to insurance, Black people are two times less likely to have health insurance than their White counterparts, and the Latinx community is three times less likely to be insured.

In efforts to further study this issue, public health professionals are calling for the establishment of the COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force Act of 2020. Doing so would create a task force that consists of key federal agency leadership, clinicians, health disparities experts, and community-based organizations that would provide weekly medical supply allocation recommendations to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In the more distant future, the task force would act as a watchdog for emerging racial disparities in future pandemics.

Other measures have been taken at the federal level.  Recently, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus introduced the Health Equity and Accountability Act. This legislation goes beyond the current pandemic and strives to ensure safe, equitable standards of living for all marginalized populations.

The NWHN realizes action needs to be taken in order to eradicate inequalities in access to healthcare – while the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare long-standing health inequities in the United States, it is our hope that the pandemic will serve as a call to immediate action surrounding the inequities ingrained in our healthcare system.

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