The Color of COVID-19: An Exposition of Endemic Disadvantage
By Janaki Nair, Solon High School, Solon, Ohio, USA
“I can’t breathe.”
These are the three words that reverberated in epic proportions across an entire country, resulting in one of the biggest movements for racial equity in decades. It called for action against police brutality in America, and demanded that racially-motivated violence be stopped forever. One would think the right to breathe is an undeniable one, but the year 2020 has disproved that notion in more ways than one. As the relentless COVID-19 continues to spread, I implore you to consider this question – has the pandemic put people of color in yet another situation where they cannot breathe?
One would marvel at the continued effect of racial discrimination on Black or Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). Bias is so deeply embedded in America that to achieve inveterate equality would be to unravel the very basis the country was built on. Institutional racism is yet another disease run rampant, giving rise to barriers in access and quality of health care during COVID-19 (Randall, 2008). The unadjusted truth is this: Black, Indigenous, and Latino Americans are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White Americans (APM Research Lab Staff, 2020).
According to Austin (2013), people of color are significantly more likely to live in concentrated poverty. Crowded urban areas are mostly populated with minorities due to redlining. The practice was a form of residential segregation in which colored communities were strategically placed in urban areas of low value (away from white neighborhoods). Although the practice is now illegal, the damage has been done. High population density in these areas make it harder to practice social distancing during the pandemic. Suboptimal air conditions leave residents at high risk for asthma and other respiratory illnesses, which increase the virulence of SARS-CoV-2 in an individual. The list is incessant, but the bottom line is that racial and ethnic minorities are still left at a disadvantage due to housing segregations that occurred decades ago.
As the unfortunate burden of bias and racism in America continues to rage, so too do its effects on the POC community through toxic stress. The build up of allostatic load – the draining effects of everyday life – causes a considerable amount of chronic health conditions. In fact, a startling 13.8% of African Americans reported having some type of chronic condition, compared to 8.3% of whites reporting the same (Carratala & Maxwell, 2020). These comorbidities (obesity, asthma, hypertension, etc.) in Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous populations increase the risk of severity and infection of COVID-19.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare, aimed to extend Medicaid to the working poor. Prior to the passage of this act, one in three Hispanic-Americans and one in five African-Americans were likely to be uninsured. The odds improved after ACA, but the problem was not solved. Today, 30 million people are uninsured - and half of those 30 million are people of color (Young, 2020). For various reasons, such as lack of transportation methods, available child care, and restricting work hours, several Americans do not have the professional care they need in the midst of the pandemic. Cultural barriers are also a culprit that dissuade even those who do have healthcare to utilize it. Most healthcare providers neglect to account for those who do not read English, or are illiterate, in their preventative brochures and pamphlets. Non-English speaking patients are left hesitant without translators during visits, and distrust of medical facilities and the government in certain demographics leave people adamant about not visiting their healthcare provider. Black and Latinx populations receive the short end of the stick in yet another way during the spread of a deadly virus.
This past summer, I was fortunate to be able to shadow the Chair of Infection Control at the Department of Infectious Disease, Summa Health System. From looking at health records, Dr. Shanu Agarwal allowed me to witness how race and the virus collide in my own state of Ohio. I was astounded at how my seemingly equal and accepting community had inherent problems that put people of color at a disadvantage as well. Though it is mostly at no fault of our own, we are blind to our privilege and what we can do to help, emphasizing the need for education on the issue at hand. A simple Google search yields hundreds of organizations to help communities in need during COVID-19 that anyone can find. Relief supplies, means of community support, and medical services can be funded or donated with the click of a button. I ask you to help others receive equal opportunity in fighting the pandemic.
I ask you to help others breathe.
APM Research Lab Staff. (2020, November 12). COVID-19 deaths analyzed by race and ethnicity. APM Research Lab. https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race
Austin, A. (2013, July 22). African Americans are still concentrated in neighborhoods with high poverty and still lack full access to decent housing. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/african-americans-concentrated-neighborhoods/
Carratala, S., & Maxwell, C. (2020, May 7). Health Disparities by Race and Ethnicity. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2020/05/07/484742/health-disparities-race-ethnicity/
Randall, V. R. (2008, January 9). What is Institutional Racism? UDayton Academic. https://academic.udayton.edu/race/2008electionandracism/raceandracism/racism02.htm
Reid, K. (2020, May 2). Why the coronavirus hits harder in communities of color. The Hartford Courant. https://www.tribpub.com/gdpr/courant.com/
Young, C. L. (2020, February 20). There are clear, race-based inequalities in health insurance and health outcomes. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/usc-brookings-schaeffer-on-health-policy/2020/02/19/there-are-clear-race-based-inequalities-in-health-insurance-and-health-outcomes/