Ironically, this racial disparity has increased the risk for white folks too
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the almost unimaginable loss of life, rationality has been among America’s greatest casualties.
Thus, the proliferation of those who think doctors and nurses are the ones killing patients brought to the ICU, rather than COVID being the culprit for that.
Or those who believe taking horse de-wormer and inhaling hydrogen peroxide is better for attacking the virus than anything a hospital might do.
This lack of critical thought is also evident in the way some understand (or, more to the point, fail to understand) the data on COVID deaths.
To wit, several persons who have recently written to me insisting the claims about COVID disproportionately killing Black people and other folks of color are false.
As they explained it, those who push a racial disparity narrative do so only to besmirch the good name of America (and white people in particular) for letting it happen.
But as with all things, they’re wrong.
First, COVID has most assuredly hit Black folks especially hard — as well as Latinos and Indigenous persons — and the data is clear on this point.
Second, my purpose in pointing this out is not to shame white people but to wake us up, not only to the racialized injustice of COVID but also to how that injustice, ironically, has increased the risk to us.
In seeking to debunk COVID’s racially disparate toll, my electronic detractors pointed specifically to recent CDC data (see below), indicating that the share of COVID deaths among whites (61.4 percent) has been roughly equal to the white percentage of the population. In fact, they noted, the white share of fatalities has been slightly higher than the white proportion of the nation, which stands at 59.7 percent.
While the Black share of deaths (15.1 percent) has been above their population percentage too (12.6), the fact that this is also true for whites — and that the Latino death share (18 percent) is below their population percentage (18.6) — suggests COVID has been a pretty equal opportunity killer.
But this is all kinds of wrong.
And if the people who sent me this had read the entire report whence these numbers came — or could merely understand it — they would know that.
Racial disparity in COVID deaths is evident once you adjust for age
To understand the racially disproportionate impact of COVID, one must remember that this virus is especially deadly for the elderly due to underlying health issues more likely experienced by them. And since white folks are far more likely to be elderly — a function of systemic racial and economic inequity suppressing life expectancy for others — a large share of the dead will be older and white.
But that’s why you have to age-adjust the data. Only then can you get a clear sense of racial risk at every age group.
And when you make those adjustments — which the CDC did in that same report mentioned above — you can see the magnitude of the problem.
Although COVID does kill older folks at racially disparate rates, the disparities above the age of 65 and especially 75 are not as significant due to the consistency with which this virus kills the aged.
Where things change significantly is when you examine the non-elderly.
Among persons 55–64, whites are 69 percent of the population, but only 45.5 percent of those who have died in that age group.
For persons 45–54, whites are 61 percent of the population but a little less than 37 percent of the dead from COVID.
On the other hand, Black folks are 12 percent of the 55–64 population but 21 percent of COVID deaths in that group — a rate nearly 1.8 times what it would be if their deaths were consistent with their share of the 55–64 age cohort.
For 35–44-year-olds, Black folks are a bit less than 13 percent of the population but more than 23 percent of deaths in this group.
Latinos are 18 percent of the 45–54 age group, but 35 percent of that cohort’s deaths — almost double the share we’d expect if deaths mirrored the population percentages.
And the data is genuinely stunning for Indigenous persons.
For 35–44-year-olds, Indigenous folks are 0.7 percent of the population but nearly 3 percent of deaths — a share of deaths fully four times their population percentage of that age group.
For 25–34-year-olds, Indigenous persons are 0.8 percent of the population but nearly 4 percent of the dead in this group.
A few calculations from the following chart also demonstrate the magnitude of COVID’s racial disparity.
While only 15 percent of white COVID deaths have been to persons under 65, nearly a third of Blacks who’ve died were younger than that. And while only 1 in 33 white decedents have been younger than 50, almost 1 in 10 Blacks who have died were that young.
For Latinos, nearly 4 in 10 of the dead have been under 65, and around 1 in 8 have been under 50.
For Indigenous persons who have died, 42 percent have been under 65, and 1 in 7 have been younger than 50.
Racial disparities in health outcomes are NOT just about economics
Some might say that these racial disparities in COVID deaths, though real, aren’t about race per se. This is the kind of racism denial you often get from certain quarters of the left. Such persons don’t dispute the disproportionate disadvantages Black folks face, for instance, but merely insist that those disadvantages have less to do with race-based unfairness and more to do with socioeconomic status.
But denial, no matter how “progressive,” is still just bullshit.
Although COVID data hasn’t been broken out by race and class together, we know that when it comes to the co-morbidities that tend to make COVID fatal, Black, Indigenous, and Latino folks suffer more of them than whites at every level of economic condition.
Indeed, better-off persons of color typically fare no better than lower income and working class whites when it comes to health, and often quite a bit worse.
For instance, in one study of severe maternal morbidity (SMM) — a leading indicator of population-level health — Black women in low poverty neighborhoods were more than four times as likely to experience a severe maternity-related complication as white women from high poverty neighborhoods.
Likewise, Black women with at least a Bachelor’s degree had SMM rates 2.4 times higher than white women who never graduated high school.
In other words, racial health disparities before COVID, which have now driven COVID disparities over the past 19 months, are not simply about Black and brown folks being poorer, on average than white people.
It is not a matter of “class, not race.” It’s about how racial mistreatment and discrimination, historic and contemporary, have affected Black and brown people, even when they are educated, employed, and have decent health care coverage.
But ironically, all this Black and brown death has also hurt white people
Having said all of this, just because persons of color have borne a disproportionate share of the suffering from COVID does not mean white Americans can breathe easily.
As I’ve discussed previously, the trajectory of COVID has demonstrated how interrelated we are and how dangerous it is to think you’re not at risk just because others seem to be taking the brunt of the damage.
When the early reports last April indicated the impact of COVID mainly was falling on Black folks in large urban areas, many seemingly decided the virus wasn’t a risk to them.
That was the point when conservatives, led by President Trump, started demanding the re-opening of temporarily shuttered businesses and the resumption of normalcy. Now that they knew those people were doing the bulk of the dying, it was as if they decided they could go back to their regular lives, confident they would be safe.
And so they did: they refused to mask, scoffed at social distancing, and then when the vaccine became available, they were the ones disproportionately refusing to take it.
Now, look what’s happened.
In March and April of 2020, white folks were only about 30 percent of those who had died from COVID, even with the way this virus primarily affects the elderly and even with whites being a disproportionate share of such persons.
But by the end of 2020, 55 percent of those dying monthly were white. Now, over 60 percent of the overall dead are white. And increasingly, this toll is falling on white folks in precisely the conservative, Trump-loving states where people felt immune.
It’s no exaggeration to say that hundreds of thousands of white people have died who wouldn’t have died had we taken COVID more seriously early on when it seemed primarily a problem for those who weren’t white like us.
But because of the early disparities — still evident once you adjust for age — we took our foot off the brake, and here we are, pushing 700,000 dead. More than 1 in 500 Americans have now died because of COVID.
Yet, in the face of this mass death, millions are choosing, out of allegiance to a real estate developer and former game show host, to rely on Facebook friends, Reddit threads, and MAGA TikTok for advice rather than scientists and doctors the world over.
Between their medical ignorance and their inability to interpret basic data, there is no reason to think things will get better for America anytime soon.