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Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Mortality

Daniel Tan, Paulette Cha June 22, 2020
photo - Empty ICU Bed Behind Glass Door

Many in California and across the nation are protesting the use of force against African Americans by law enforcement. Black Californians are also dying at disproportionately high rates due to complications arising from COVID-19. As immediate and alarming as these current inequities are, racial disparities in policing and health are among the many long-standing disparities across multiple dimensions that interact with and often reinforce one another.

The PPIC Statewide Survey finds that 30% of African Americans are very concerned about contracting COVID-19, compared to 18% of white Californians. This concern may be linked to high rates of employment in front-line essential jobs among black Californians. African Americans are also more likely to have underlying health conditions that increase risk of serious complications from COVID-19. This likelihood is driven in part by socioeconomic factors, including higher poverty rates and lower access to care.

Even after adjusting for age, sex, comorbidity, and income, African Americans appear to be much more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than whites are. Most ominously, though, African Americans who contract the virus are dying at disproportionately high rates—their share of COVID-19 deaths is about 1.5 times greater than their share of the state population.

Figure - African Americans Comprise a Disproportionate Share of COVID-19 Deaths in California

For these reasons, the rallies and marches focused on police treatment of African Americans could pose especially large health risks for African American protesters. While these gatherings do not seem to be inducing a surge in COVID-19 cases so far, police responses could be increasing the risk. Penning protesters prevents social distancing, and chemicals such as tear gas and pepper spray can promote virus spread by injuring airways or causing sneezing or coughing. Limiting these tactics would lower the risk of transmission as demonstrations continue.

As scientists rush to develop a coronavirus vaccine, leaders and policymakers must address the longstanding distrust of the medical system among African Americans—generated by historical inequities, lack of representation, and unethical experimentation. Indeed, African Americans are more likely to be wary of medical researchers and doctors than Americans in other race/ethnic groups.

In California, African Americans have been about as likely to get tested for COVID-19 as Californians overall, but according to Pew Research Center, only 54% nationally say they would definitely or probably get a COVID-19 vaccination if it were available today, compared to 74% of whites.

Police brutality and racial health disparities are complex problems, and both stem from long-standing structural disparities that will take significant time and effort to ameliorate. California has made recent efforts to address systemic issues—including “Stephon Clark’s Law,” which set a statewide use-of-force standard. These and other measures might help lay the groundwork for reducing disparities that the pandemic has made plain.

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