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Data from multiple states has revealed a trend: African Americans are dying in greater numbers from COVID-19 than other demographics.
This observation was initially only documented in Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana, but as more states have released data related to the coronavirus pandemic, the trend appears to be national.
Health experts and members of the African American community agree that, rather than suggesting a genetic vulnerability to the disease, the issue is due to systemic flaws in America’s health and social systems.
Globally, experts worry that developing countries, where citizens experience higher rates of debilitating medical conditions, will soon be hit hard by the pandemic.
High mortality rates among African Americans
On Wednesday, April 8, Reuters reported preliminary numbers out of Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana that indicate that African Americans are both at risk of greater infection from COVID-19 and at greater risk of dying due to COVID-19 related causes.
In Michigan, 40% of coronavirus-linked deaths were those of African Americans, even though the group makes up only 14% of the state’s population. Similarly, 70% of those in Louisiana who died as a result of the pandemic were black, despite the state’s total African American population being only 33%. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the death rate for African Americans in Illinois was 42% despite African Americans only making up 15% of the state’s population.
Following these initial reports, The Guardian reported a similar trend was beginning to take shape in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. In every state, the African American population is at greater risk of both infection and death due to the virus.
This bias in the way the disease affects the African American community is appearing despite the fatality rate in the US remaining lower than the fatality rate globally.
In early April, while the global fatality rate was reported to be around 5%, it was just over 2% in the United States. This despite the fact that the US currently has the highest number of COVID-19 cases of any country in the world.
According to census data, Black or African American individuals make up approximately 13.4% of the entire US population. Comparatively, 76.5% are white, 5.9% are Asian American and 2.7% are mixed race. American Indians, native Hawaiians and other native populations make up the remainder of the US population.
Dr. Fauci responds to the high rates
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is helping to lead the US’s coronavirus response, acknowledged the problem on national television.
During the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing on Tuesday, April 7, Fauci said the issue does “shine a very bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society.”
He compared the situation to the unequal burden the gay community experienced during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, calling the situation “unacceptable.”
Rather than the higher rates suggesting a biological factor, Fauci said the trend was likely due to “underlying medical conditions” in the African American community. Such conditions include higher rates of diabetes, obesity, asthma and hypertension.
At the same briefing, President Donald Trump said that the cause for the disparity would need to be determined through further study.
It’s been shown that by the time they reach middle age, African Americans are twice as likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than their white counterparts. A 2018 study by researchers at Northwestern University makes it clear that this is not due purely to biological factors, as had been previously thought, but rather due to “combination of biological, neighborhood, psychosocial, socioeconomic and behavioral factors.”
One of the more indicative factors is the increased obesity rate in the African American community. Being overweight puts an individual at a significantly higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, studies show.
Over 30 percent of overweight individuals have the disease.
On April 8, in response to the news, US Representative Ayanna Pressley, an African American member of Congress from Massachusetts, tweeted that the underlying cause for the higher mortality rates was “structural racism.” She said that African American neighborhoods have “unequal access to healthy [and] fresh foods” and are less clean due to greed and neglect.
Damon Young, writing for The Root, a website devoted to “black news, opinions, politics and culture,” also argues that the disparity is rooted in cultural factors. Specifically, he suggests the problem is decades in the making.
Years of discrimination and economic policies that have hurt the African American community, Young argues, has left them especially vulnerable.
“We’re also more likely to possess the sort of economic vulnerability that makes it more difficult to practice social distancing,” Young explains, “more likely to be at the mercy of unsympathetic landlords, less likely to be insured and more likely to have the sort of occupation that places us on the front lines.”
Bridget Rivera, a licensed psychologist and faculty member of Purdue University Global, shared this view. Speaking to The Millennial Source, Rivera concluded that, “In short, it is a privilege to be able to socially distance, a privilege that people of color may not be able to enjoy in the midst of this pandemic.”
The COVID risk in developing nations
Though the global conversation around the spread of COVID-19 has mostly focused on Asia, Europe and North America, medical experts are concerned about the damage the disease could cause once it hits developing societies in other places in the world, such as Africa.
As reported by Al Jazeera, a major concern is the high prevalence of tuberculosis (TB) in Africa.
TB is a chronic respiratory condition that “reduces the lungs’ capacity for normal breathing.” Like asthma and other respiratory conditions, the damage TB does to the lungs makes patients more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Africa also has the largest population affected by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), a disease that damages the immune system, of any continent in the world. Once HIV develops into AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), the human body can no longer fight off other diseases, like COVID-19.