Why COVID-19 and social discriminations are killing minorities in the US

Article by Matilde Monteleone | Illustration by Francesco Moretti

At the end of March, the Governor of the State of New York defined COVID-19 as “the great equalizer”. But is that really so? Although the virus transcends national borders, not everyone is vulnerable in the same way. In particular, Cuomo’s words appear rather controversial and far from true if you look at the latest data.

According to the statistics, the pandemic has different consequences depending on ethnicity, economic conditions, social class and access to the health system.

The numbers speak for themselves

In particular, African Americans and Latin Americans are the ethnic groups most affected by the virus. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that on April 25 30% of patients affected by the virus were African-Americans, although African-Americans represent only 13% of the US population.

In addition, on  April 17 the investigative online journal Mother Jones published an interesting statistical survey about the Infection rate for black population with COVID-19 and Fatalities in black and in the latinx community due to COVID-19.

From here it turns out that in Wisconsin, where black people represent only 6% of the population, 40% of deaths from COVID-19 belong to the African-American minority. In South Carolina, blacks make up 26% of the state population and at the same time account for nearly 60% of fatalities.

In the city of Chicago alone, black people account for 68% of virus deaths, when the African-American population makes up only 30% of the total population (as Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the coronavirus is “devastating black Chicago”).

The data are also highly worrying for the Latin American community. In Arizona, where the Latin American population represents only 10% of the total population, 39% of the dead are latinos. All these numbers are impressive when you think that in the United States there are currently over a million cases of COVID-19.

The causes behind these strong racial disparities are multiple.

Different incomes

First of all, the inequality of income. African-Americans and Latinos start from a disadvantaged situation because their lower social inclusion is reflected in the greater difficulty in accessing stable jobs that guarantee a constant income.

Therefore, for these individuals it is much more difficult, often impossible, to access medical care because of the private health system: the average cost for six days of hospitalization for COVID-19 is around $34,600 if you have private health insurance, $8,200 with Medicare and $5,800 with Medicaid, while it could reach $65,515 for those without insurance.

The difficulties in receiving treatment for the virus for African Americans and Latin Americans explain such high mortality rates.

In addition, blacks and Latinos constitute the majority of workers at risk. In fact, many are involved in so-called essential jobs, i.e. in the production sector, in supermarkets, as cleaners or as delivery men; all jobs that, during this pandemic period, cannot be replaced by smart-working, so the risk of getting sick becomes much higher.

Different quality of life

Another factor, always linked to income, is health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that on average black people have a life expectancy of 76 years, while white people have a life expectancy of 80 years.

In addition, a black person is much more likely to die of heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, flu and pneumonia, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS than a white person. As a result, a black individual contracting COVID-19 is much more likely to be hospitalized, or even to die, from complications related to past illnesses, which has happened in most cases so far.

The causes of this inequality are several, starting with living conditions. In fact, due to a much lower income, African American families are twice as exposed to food insecurity as white families (21% compared to the national average of 11%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture), where food insecurity means difficulty in accessing the necessary food on a constant basis.

Therefore, many of these households are more likely to eat junk food which is cheaper, increasing the likelihood of developing health problems over time.

Environmental and urban factors also have a major impact on the health of these minorities. In fact, statistically, it is ethnic minorities such as African Americans and Latin Americans who live in the outskirts of large cities, near toxic landfills and incinerators, as well as busy highways and polluting factories.

The air quality in these areas is therefore very low, exposing these individuals to the risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma and tuberculosis, and lately, coronavirus. As recent studies have shown, COVID-19 spreads at a much higher rate in areas where the air is polluted. Moreover, these are usually areas where the population lives in very small, overcrowded dwellings, where the risk of contracting the virus is higher.

A double challenge

The common root of these causes – income, type of job, access to health insurance, health, environmental conditions – is racism. It is in fact a society characterized by inequality that makes it possible for certain social classes to be more exposed to new risks and dangers (the most recent being COVID-19) from which it is difficult to be spared.

Cuomo’s words are even more unsuitable if they are contextualized in the real situation in which America finds itself, a situation that inevitably involves a double challenge for the government: on the one hand to fight the pandemic, and on the other to put an end to those inequalities that are now intrinsic to society.

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