There’s a saying, “When white America catches a cold, Black folks get the flu.” That adage has never been more apparent or devastating than it has during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many people have called the coronavirus a “great equalizer.” But while the virus might not discriminate, the impact on different communities is far from equal.
Over the past week, it became alarmingly clear that African Americans and Latinos are dying at a disproportionately high rate across the country. In Milwaukee County, Black people made up 67% of COVID-19 deaths by Thursday, despite being just 27% of the population. In New York City, preliminary data released Wednesday showed the virus killing Black and Latino people at twice the rate of white people.
But across Washington state, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge of racial disparities in coronavirus infections and deaths.
Despite having the first known case of COVID-19 in the country on Jan. 20, it wasn’t until Friday evening that the state finally released any racial demographic data on coronavirus deaths, and what they did release was incomplete. The state death data shows racial demographics consistent with the population, which is encouraging, but race hasn’t yet been reported in 33% of the deaths.
Public Health — Seattle & King County released some preliminary data Friday that included COVID-19 death statistics that appeared cautiously hopeful, showing deaths consistent with county demographics. Yet they warned the majority of deaths were in long-term care facilities that may not reflect the general population. The overall case numbers were slightly less promising. Again the numbers came with major caveats, such as racial data was only available in 51% of cases and testing is not widespread, but the early numbers show that Latinos were disproportionately impacted, accounting for 17% of cases but only 10% of the population.
There is nothing new about racial health disparities in the U.S., but the systemic racial and economic inequalities that are leading to the high number of African American deaths from coronavirus are particularly cruel.
Black people and other people of color are more likely to be uninsured and less likely to have access to sick leave if they get ill. If they are sick, Black people are less likely to be given a coronavirus test to determine their care. While we are all instructed to “stay home and save lives,” people of color are more likely to be low-wage, essential frontline workers, such as service workers and health care workers, at higher risk of exposure. In areas like New York City, people of color are more likely to be packed onto crowded subways with no way to physically distance. Less than 20% of African Americans and 17% of Latinos are able to work from home. It’s all a recipe for the disaster we now face.
Higher rates of underlying conditions like diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease — legacies of structural racism and segregation — and environmental conditions like higher air pollution, leave Black people of any age in greater danger of succumbing to the virus. When more data emerges, it’s likely that Native Americans will be hit hard as well.
But the more we know how the virus is spreading in our communities and who is at greatest risk, the better we will be able to fight it and know where to place our resources. That’s why tracking demographic data is so important.
To that end, five Congressional Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on March 27, calling on the federal government to collect and report the racial demographic information of COVID-19 patients. They wrote, “Despite the clear vulnerability of people of color in this public health emergency, comprehensive demographic data on the racial and ethnic characteristics of people who are tested or treated for COVID-19 does not exist.”
But some municipalities are way ahead of the pack. Wisconsin’s Milwaukee city and county, for example, passed resolutions last summer to address race-based inequality and declare racism a public health emergency. While Milwaukee only had its first case of coronavirus in mid-March, the county already has an impressive and robust dashboard on the number of cases and deaths with race and ethnicity data front and center.
Glenn Harris is the former manager of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) and is now the president of the national racial-justice organization Race Forward. Race Forward and the Othering and Belonging Institute partnered to create the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a network of people in government working to achieve racial equity. GARE worked with Milwaukee County to create its health and racial equity framework, which emphasized the importance of public data on race like their COVID-19 dashboard.
Data is critical, Harris said, to ensure responses reach where they are most needed.
“This crisis just makes visible what’s already occurring in our community. Data allows us, especially in crisis, to get really clear on where we should invest our time, our resources, and our energy. Data is critical.”
And the reverse is also true, Harris said. “If you want to know where there’s inequity, just find out where people are not collecting data.”
That appears to be the bulk of the country’s states at this point, plus the federal government.
The state Department of Health said reporting on coronavirus racial demographics is hampered by needing to contact each person individually, a daunting task when you have nearly 10,000 cases. But much harder-hit areas like New York City, with 160,000 cases, have been able to report racial demographics of those who have died, raising the question of whether our state was adequately prepared to coordinate the necessary numbers.
We have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of the pandemic’s racial disparities. After the immediate health crisis improves, we will need to focus on the second wave of unemployment and economic collapse. How are communities of color being affected differently? We need to demand the data from all levels of government to understand more and know how best to respond.