COVID-19 Doesn’t Discriminate, but Minorities Beg to Differ

Over 210,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. As we have seen, this disease does not discriminate; it has affected our loved ones, celebrities and even our president. But this disease does target minorities at a much higher percentage. 

The populations hit the hardest from this pandemic are people from racial and ethnic minority groups. Pre-pandemic, health and social inequities have devastated the quality of life of these groups. This pandemic has only worsened that. 

According to the CDC, Black, Hispanic, and American Indian or Alaska Native people have been the most affected by the virus, as they are more than 2.5 times likely to contract the virus, and are more than 4.5 times likely to be hospitalized than their white companions. Asian people, as well, are 1.1 times more likely to be infected and 1.3 times more likely to be hospitalized than white Americans. It is worthwhile to note, however, that unlike Black, Hispanic and American Indians, Asians showed no increased risk in deaths when compared to white persons. 

But why has COVID-19 strained marginalized communities at a higher rate than white Americans? Below are several factors that are likely to contribute to this disparity. 

So how exactly does race or ethnicity influence health? 

Let’s begin with discrimination. Racial bias can damage Black Americans' quality of healthcare by ensuing a psychological toll from constant discrimination, being exposed to racial disparities formed from the implicit bias of a physician’s perception and decisions and can degrade communication and the overall patient-provider relationship. The added stress from discrimination and the lack of trust between the Black population and physicians, due to implicit racial bias, is degrading Black Americans' health. 

As you can probably tell, the healthcare system has a lot of work to overcome systemic racism. This sort of discrimination does not necessarily mean doctors are rejecting Black patients and expressing hate toward them. It is the unconscious racial actions or remarks that make patients feel uncomfortable. An appointment with a doctor is a vulnerable and intimate interaction where trust is of the utmost importance. Without it, patients will not feel safe to discuss their concerns causing their health to ultimately pay the price. Healthcare workers, pre-health students, and all other individuals interested in a career in medicine must be aware of any implicit racial bias they may have. These individuals must be educated on reducing their unconscious racial bias because a hospital or clinic has no space for this kind of behavior. 

How can we stop implicit racial bias from impacting our decisions and behavior?

The first step is recognizing you have it. Do you tend to favor a certain race or ethnicity? Do you create judgments or assumptions about someone’s character without even knowing them? Implicit bias is like a bad habit. It is developed throughout our life from personal experiences and the way the media may portray certain groups. Sometimes we don’t even know we have it until someone points it out. In order to change this, try to think about your first impression of someone and dig deep into why you’re thinking this way. Question any stereotypes that you have been told and avoid repeating them. Before getting to know someone, make sure to not make assumptions about a person’s character based on cultural stereotypes. Educate yourself on social disparities. Most importantly, keep each other accountable for any racial remarks and unconscious bias. 

Is there a gap in access to healthcare that has affected the health of minorities? 

According to the CDC, minorities have reduced access to healthcare than their white counterparts. This can be for several reasons: they may be uninsured, have a lack of transportation to a clinic, have to take care of children, can’t take off time from work, experience language barriers, have different cultural beliefs from western medicine, and could have been exposed to discrimination in a healthcare setting. All of these factors contribute to the large, negative impact on the health of minority groups. How can we expect people of color to perform at the same level as white individuals if they can’t take care of their health? A sick person cannot perform at their highest potential. Without quality healthcare, marginalized communities suffer in all aspects of their life. This gap in healthcare access can be a contributing factor to the larger impact of COVID-19 on minority groups. If they can’t get tested, or receive treatment for the virus, they have no other option than to suffer from it. Someone who does not have access to testing and shows no symptoms can unconsciously spread the virus to not only are their loved ones, but to the people they interact with on a daily basis, as well.

How does your occupation affect your risk?

Many marginalized people are stuck in essential jobs that don’t allow them to work from home. Latinxs are overrepresented (55%) in detailed occupational work like painting, construction and maintenance, and Black men were more likely than any other race or ethnicity to work in transportation and utilities (13%). They are also disproportionately represented in essential workplaces such as healthcare facilities, farms, factories, public transportation and grocery stores.

This heightens their likelihood of contracting the virus by being in close contact with others. Some families may depend on each and every paycheck that they receive to support their family or pay the bills. They can’t simply quit since most may not have the proper education (yet another social disparity) to look for a stable job in which they can earn a higher pay, receive paid sick leave and collect any other glamorous benefits. Instead, they are limited in options and most of the time can’t afford to miss work to take care of their health, even before the days of the pandemic. With a greater risk for having poor health issues, marginalized people are predisposed to developing dangerous diseases such as cardiovascular or renal disease, which places them in the high-risk population for developing severe symptoms from COVID-19. 

Has the increasing unemployment rate affected people of color more than white people?

With the pandemic came rising numbers in unemployment. While everyone was affected by the increasing unemployment rate, Black workers faced a higher rate of unemployment in April at 16.7%, while white workers faced an unemployment rate of 14.2% 

The disproportionate unemployment rate for people of color may put them at greater risk for eviction and homelessness. As unemployment benefits have declined, 30 million out of 110 million Americans in rental housing have been at risk of eviction since the end of September. You can bet that most of these Americans are part of racial minority groups. 

According to an article from Politico, the CARES act (meant to help homeowners and renters) did not cover 72% of the rental housing market of which Black households are more likely to be a part of. The gap between white homeownership and Black ownership is about 30% (which is wider than when housing discrimination was legal). 

In recent data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey, Politico mentioned 42.2% of Black renters had “no” or “slight” confidence in their ability to pay rent for the upcoming month compared to 21.7% of white renters. This is yet another indirect method in which people of color are being discriminated against––the lack of opportunity to own a house has caused Black Americans to endure greater consequences from the skyrocketing unemployment rate created by the pandemic.

Black Americans may make up only 12% of the general population, but more than 40% of them make up the homeless population. In general, 17 out of 10,000 Americans experience homelessness, but 22 Latinxs out of 10,000 are homeless. Lastly, 160 Pacific Islanders and Native Americans out of 10,000 experience homelessness. Based on these statistics, there is a rising problem in homelessness rates and the risk of evictions that Americans, specifically marginalized communities, are facing. Without a home, people end up on the streets or in crowded shelters where there may experience faulty living conditions such as poor ventilation (a situation in which the virus is more easily spread). People in these circumstances experience a poor living standard that will ultimately devastate their health.

Racial and ethnic minority groups have suffered a great deal during this pandemic and are left defenseless due to the many health disparities they face.  We cannot make assumptions on the severity of the virus based on our own personal experiences, but that of everyone’s experience. Yes, the president was able to undergo a speedy recovery, despite being high-risk at age 74 with cardiac issues. But you have to keep in mind the president of the United States is one of the most important (if not the most important) people in the world and therefore is treated at a different standard than the general public. He had access to round-the-clock care from the best doctors in the nation and access to the best drugs to treat his symptoms. Therefore, the president’s recovery cannot be set as the standard of the repercussions from COVID-19. The truth is that COVID-19 is a deadly disease that must be addressed with extreme caution.

We must be aware of how our privilege has stopped us from being subject to these disparities. Remember to treat others with respect by following the guidelines set by scientists and healthcare workers.  The next time you’re at a grocery store or hopping on a bus, take some time to greet and thank the workers for their service. A simple act of kindness can go a long way. Always remember to wash your hands, social distance, and wear a mask.