Written by James Coleman
Over the past few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every facet of our lives, from public health, to the economy, to how we socialize and interact with our families, friends, and colleagues. As a new disease with no available vaccine or proven effective treatment, everyone is susceptible to COVID-19, but new data points to one demographic group being disproportionately affected by it: African Americans. Early COVID-19 mortality reports from around the country suggest that African Americans are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying from it. Emerging data from Illinois, Louisiana, and Michigan points to an alarming trend of health disparities related to COVID-19 mortality. African Americans make up 15% of Illinois’s population, 32% of Louisiana’s population, and 14% of Michigan’s population, but are 70%, 42%, and 40% of those states’ COVID-19 deaths, respectively. These preliminary data and other reports of disparities from other states and municipalities are leading to grave concern among some public health leaders and health professionals across the country that COVID-19 will hit African American and other communities of color especially hard.
At this point in time, we cannot ascertain the extent of COVID-19 disparities across the country because much of the data is preliminary, and because most states and cities are not reporting race and ethnicity as they report COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths. But we can extrapolate why African Americans may be disproportionately affected by the disease, based upon factors and long-standing health inequalities we know are present in African American communities that could contribute to high rates of COVID-19 infection and death. African Americans are more likely to have underlying health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and asthma and other serious underlying health conditions, putting them at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. African Americans are more likely to live in urban communities with high population densities where the transmission of COVID-19 is faster and more widespread than in rural and suburban communities. Also, African Americans are much more likely to have jobs where they do not have the ability to telework. Only 19.7% of African American workers can work from home, compared to 29.9% of Whites and 37% of Asians.
The data related to COVID-19 disparities is just emerging, and we do not have enough information yet to paint a big data picture for these disparities across the country. However, these early reports of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African American communities should be of concern and on the radar of public health leaders and policymakers, especially those in states and municipalities with large African American populations.