How COVID-19 affects African American communities

Kathryn Bartlett, R2 Features Editor & Long Form Investigative Editor

There’s an old saying in some African American communities: “When white folks get a cold, black folks get pneumonia.” Though traditionally applied to the economy, this phrase has taken on an even more sinister meaning in the COVID-19 era. 

While people of all races have contracted and died from the virus, the pandemic is affecting black people at a significantly higher rate, highlighting racial inequality across the country. 

While it is still early in the course of the pandemic and demographic data is incomplete, a Reuters report reveals that black people are more likely to die from the virus than people of any other race. 

This has been seen prominently in the South. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards reported on April 10 that slightly more than 70 percent of deaths in Louisiana have been among African Americans, though black people account for just a third of the state’s population. Five Florida counties have reported that black patients are being hospitalized, and in many cases, dying at higher rates. In Alabama, black people account for 44 percent of deaths. 

Other parts of the country display this pattern as well. A report from the Michigan state government, where African Americans comprise 14 percent of the population, showed them accounting for 33 percent of cases. NPR reported that 70 percent of COVID deaths in Chicago were African Americans. Officials from Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, where African Americans make up 25 percent of the population, reported that they account for an astounding 75 percent of deaths.

These racial disparities in health conditions are almost certainly related to deeply-entrenched, structural sources of inequality in our society”

— Sharon Bzostek

Federal officials have attributed these patterns to supposed cultural traits. After recognizing the disparities in a White House press conference on April 3, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told the black population that they are “not helpless” in stopping the spread of the virus and encouraged them to follow social distancing protocols for “your big mama.” After enforcing social distancing and handwashing, he announced that African Americans should “avoid alcohol and drugs.” 

However, the real explanation for these numbers lies in the structure of American society and the longstanding health and economic disparities between Caucasians and people of color, especially African Americans. 

For one thing, black people are at a much greater risk for underlying health conditions. According to the most recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, when compared to their white counterparts, African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, 20 percent more likely to die from heart disease and represent 44 percent of the HIV positive population. Additionally, a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that African Americans are at the highest risk for hypertension (high blood pressure), putting them at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

African Americans are also more likely to have a job in the essential workforce. Research from the Current Populations Survey found that 37.7 percent of black workers are in these essential services, compared to 26.9 percent of white workers. African Americans also make up a disproportionate share of jobs that require close contact with other people, including grocery and postal workers, as well as public transportation drivers. 

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in NYC is one example: 6,000 bus and subway workers have either been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are self-quarantining because they showed symptoms and 41 have died as of April 8. According to the MTA’s estimates from 2016, more than 60 percent of their workers are black or Latino. 

Though occupying higher risk jobs, black workers are less likely to be employed in jobs that can handle the necessary precautions to protect them. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans were least likely to hold jobs that allow telecommuting. African Americans were also less likely to hold jobs that offer paid sick leave, leaving a large percentage of black workers with no alternative but to go to work. 

Black people are also much less likely to drive to work as opposed to taking crowded public transportation. The Pew Research Center found that 34 percent of urban black workers use public transportation regularly compared to 14 percent of white workers, bringing these workers into further contact with COVID-19 infected people.

Finally, the places African Americans live also place them at a higher risk. Data from the 2020 Census show that only 44 percent of African Americans are homeowners, compared with 74 percent of white people. Black people are more likely to live in densely populated urban areas, where the crowded nature of apartment complexes and public housing increases the risk.

“Factors like poverty and income inequality, residential segregation, and historical and continued racial discrimination in many facets of life all probably play a role here.” 

How should the healthcare system respond? Bzostek believes that the government needs to take action. “The unequal effects of COVID-19 across the population puts a spotlight on the terribly high level of inequality– especially by race and class– in our society,” Bzostek said. “We need programs and policies to seriously address this inequality, at a fundamental level.”