How the COVID-19 outbreak exposed racial health disparities


Zach Gilbert

COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect communities of color, shining a light on damning health disparities in America. Photo courtesy of AP.

In April 2020, at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, an analysis published by the Associated Press revealed that one-third of those who died from COVID-19 were Black – and the situation has only grown more grim after nearly a year has passed.

According to the COVID Racial Data Tracker, Black people have died at 1.5 times the rate of white people, and we’ve now lost over 60,000 Black lives to COVID-19 – approximately 15% of the nearly 425,000 Americans who have died thus far.

Scott Frank, an associate professor in the department of population and quantitative health services at Case Western Reserve University, noted that the Black population could be impacted more due to the fact that they are disproportionately affected by ailments such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and kidney disease. However, there are other factors at play as well.

“One might assume that because African Americans are at higher risk for chronic diseases and premature death that they would receive more health services,” Frank said. “But in fact, African Americans consistently receive fewer services.”

These services may be unavailable for a variety of reasons. For starters, discrimination still exists in health care systems across the nation, barring some Black Americans from being properly tested or treated. In addition, people of color are more likely to be uninsured than non-Hispanic whites, potentially prohibiting them from seeking out health services in the first place.

To make matters worse, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, people of color make up the majority of essential workers in food and agriculture and in industrial, commercial and residential facilities/services. Therefore, many have no choice but to brave the pandemic and continue to work, no matter the cost.

Furthermore, people of color are more likely to live in housing situations – such as multigenerational families or low-income and public housing – that make it difficult to social distance of self-isolate.

In order to achieve greater health equity in America, many new programs will need to be put into place. To begin, data related to COVID-19 testing, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and fatalities must be continually disaggregated by race and ethnicity at the local and national level to help target communities in need, according to health officials.

From there, many believe that health services should be provided where the people are, instead of expecting citizens to travel to receive care.

“One component of this would be to expand the network of community health centers that serve people in their own neighborhoods,” Stuart M. Butler, a prominent health care analyst, wrote in a review for the American Medical Association late last year.

Additionally, efforts must be made in hospitals across the country to do racial outreach and alleviate the understandable concerns many Black Americans have with health care and vaccination in general.

“Poor communication and distrust between physicians and patients are factors, and for health encounters generally, they lead to poorer health outcomes,” Butler noted. “For example, the suspicion among Black individuals regarding a COVID-19 vaccine has deep historical roots.”

Therefore, if hospitals can commit to improving trust and training physicians and nurses with better interracial communication skills, this can go a long way to diminishing the discrimination experienced nationwide. It may just be a start, but as Butler says, it’s something.