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Researchers Find Deadliest Aspect of COVID-19 for People of Color: Racism

, Senior Climate Justice and Health Scientist | July 20, 2020, 7:00 am EDT
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This post is a part of a series on COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Pandemic

I published my first blog post about COVID-19 on March 13. I remember because it was my Mother’s 84th birthday. In that post I talked about some of the growing concerns around COVID-19, and yet nobody had any idea of the very real impact that COVID-19 would have over the next few months and throughout the year.

As the pandemic progressed, I wrote about the Black population’s disproportionate risk of infection and death from COVID-19, before there were studies and documented evidence and information to support my position.

Now two notable analyses, along with others, provide the always-in-demand but sometimes elusive data, to prove what we already know to be true. One of the many things I appreciate about these analyses is that they focus directly on the numbers. For those of you who are more comfortable with – or more convinced by – hard numbers than the very real public health effects on actual people, these two articles are what you are looking for!

In that initial blogpost, I mentioned my Aunt Bettie, who was in a nursing home where she would later test positive for COVID-19, and my Uncle and Aunt– Sam and Charlotte–who lived in an assisted living facility where they tested negative for the virus.

Since that time, my Aunt Bettie – who was asymptomatic – passed away, as did my Uncle Sam. While neither of these deaths are attributable to COVID-19, it definitely played a role in how our family paid our respects and said our last goodbyes, and how they were laid to rest. I would not want anyone to go through that, but I know it happens to everyone who loses someone during this syndemic.

However, in the time of COVID-19, death is happening at a greater rate for Black people, Latinx people, and Indigenous people. Disproportionately high numbers of Black, Latinx and Indigenous people are dead from COVID-19. Does this suggest that we–public health professionals, congressional leaders, scientific community members–should urgently act to protect these populations? Unless you really don’t care about these people out of a racist world view, the answer is a resounding ‘HELL YES!’

Environmental and economic conditions experienced by people of color are influenced not only by the environmental injustices of living in contaminated areas, but also by climate change impacts. Those impacts affect vulnerable communities first and worst, and this is exacerbated by COVID-19, which has ravaged the lives of Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities. The underlying cause that runs through these issues is racism, plain and simple.

Two reports document the racial disparities of COVID-19

The first report, released on June 26th, came from the Rhodium Group. That informative report, A Just Green Recovery, assessed the impacts outlined by Chairman Raul Grijalva and Representative Donald McEachin in their March 26, 2020 letter to House and Senate leaders and detailed the need to provide assistance to environmental justice communities.

Here are a few of my top takeaways from the Rhodium Group’s report:

  1. 16% and 18%: Black and Latinx employment in the US between February and May fell by 16 percent and 18 percent respectively. The White employment rate fell by only 11 percent.
  2. 4x, 4.4x and 5.5x: The hospital admission rates for COVID-19-related illnesses (according to CDC estimates), between March and June 13 for Latinxs was four times greater than for White people. For Black people the admission rates were 4.4 times greater and for Indigenous people, the admission rates were 5.5 times greater.
  3. 2x: Black people were twice as likely to die from COVID-19 in the US compared with White people (adjusted for age).
  4. 124% and 72%: The average Latinx lives in proximity to 124 percent more traffic when compared to White people. For Black people, that proximity and volume, although less than that for Latinx people, is around 72 percent when compared with White people.
  5. 102% and 80%: The percent of Latinx and Black people living close to facilities that transfer, store, or dispose of hazardous waste (TSDFs) compared with White people who live near  these facilities (respectively).
  6. 88% and 54%: The percent of Latinx and Black people who live near facilities that handle, manufacture, use, or store certain flammable or toxic substances, as required under section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) (RMP – Risk Management Plan – facilities) (respectively).
  7. 42% and 30%: The percent of Latinx and Black people, respectively, who live near National Priority List sites.
  8. 41% and 46%: The percent of Black and Latinx people, respectively, exposed to diesel particulate matter.

The second analysis came from the New York Times, “The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus.” The data included in the analysis were obtained only after the Times successfully sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the information and received data on Black and Latinx infection and death rates from COVID-19 throughout the country.

Here are my key takeaways from the NY Times study:

  1. 3x: The likelihood that Black and Latinx people in the United States will be infected by COVID-19 compared with their White counterparts.
  2. 2x: The likelihood that Black and Latinx people are likely to die from COVID-19, compared with White people.
  3. 5x: The infection rate for Latinx people between the ages of 40 and 59 compared with White people in the same age group.
  4. >25%: The percentage of Latinx people who died from COVID-19 who were less than 60 years old. Only 6 percent of White people who died were in that same age group.
  5. This data accounted for about 55 percent of the nation’s population

In the United States to date, more than three million people have been confirmed with COVID-19 and over 130,000 people have died. That translates to 987.3 confirmed cases per every 100,000 people. It is impossible to give a breakdown by race because unfortunately those data were not tracked from the start of this pandemic and as pointed out, there are numerous data gaps. For instance, there is little data available for American Indians/Alaska Natives.

Here are some additional insights beyond the two studies cited above:

  • Latinx and Black people are disproportionately exposed to a greater number of environmental hazards compared with White people, making them more likely to be infected by COVID-19.
  • These exposures are partially why COVID-19 is having such a hugely negative impact on these minority communities. As the report states “…while Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, those that live in high environmental risk areas are experiencing even more significant impacts.”
  • There is a lack of transparency around racial data. This affects a number of potential responses to the pandemic, including those focusing on funding to protect these populations, the development of procedures and prioritization protocols for vaccine administration, and a host of other actions.

We have talked about the glaring disparities in health, wealth, environmental exposure, and death related to the disproportionate challenges faced by minority communities. We have discussed it ad infinitum. We know that these issues stem from structural racism and continued racist practices. One of the consequences of racism, including redlining and siting hazardous waste facilities in communities of color, is economic oppression. Jobs–good, safe jobs–are almost impossible to find for those communities. We KNOW that living above the poverty line, doing more than making ends meet, eating nutritional foods, living in clean and safe places, and paying the bills have been challenges for many people. We also know that it is achievable.

The bottom line is this: an investment by the federal government in environmental justice programs focused on the most vulnerable among us can lead to almost 300,000 new jobs. That would lead to greatly improved economic conditions, safe jobs, better living conditions, and access to affordable healthcare, safe and stable infrastructure, and more.

Even more important? Better access to healthcare and health insurance, healthy foods, safer environments, and clean air and water—all of which are needed in the fight against COVID-19 now and in any other challenging times in the future. Only with those requisite conditions will we begin to address the issues highlighted by the data in both documents–the number of minority communities living in untenable situations, poisoned by their environments, ‘barely making ends meet’, and ravaged by COVID-19. It is not the only action needed, but it is a necessary and important one.

How many people will die–and die alone–while we do nothing? How many more virtual funerals, or worries over making ends meet or people dealing with foreclosures and evictions? How much data is needed before everyone accepts that there is a HUGE public health crisis and that immediate action is necessary? We are way past being out of time. We need action like, yesterday!

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