The Reasons Black Communities Are Getting Hit Uniquely Hard by COVID-19 Are Complicated But Clear Experts Say

Man carrying his bicycle downstairs (Getty Stock Photo)
Man carrying his bicycle downstairs (Getty Stock Photo)

Statistics that have come out in several states show that African-Americans who get the novel coronavirus are dying at much higher rates.

As COVID-19 continues to take lives across the U.S., the black community accounts for a disproportionate percentage of those deaths. While national numbers have not yet surfaced, several states have published worrying statistics showing how the novel coronavirus is affecting African Americans in the U.S.'s most hard-hit cities.

During the beginning of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., there were endless myths about the coronavirus being circulating across social media, including that black people are immune to the virus.

Statistics tell a much different story.

In Chicago, black people make up 70% of coronavirus deaths, but only 30% of the population, according to a recent report. In Michigan, black people represent 40% of the death toll, but only 14% of the population, according to the state's website. In New York City, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., African Americans make up 28% of the COVID-19 death toll, but only 26% of the population. Similar trends can be seen throughout the U.S.

President Donald Trump acknowledged the high rates of death in African Americans due to coronavirus last week, saying it is "terrible" and a "tremendous challenge." Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed the issue as well.

"So we are very concerned about that. It is very sad. There is nothing we can do about it right now except to give them the best possible care to avoid complications," Fauci said at a press conference last week.

Experts say the reason behind the surge in deaths is multi-layered, and including factors such as underlying illnesses, the jobs people of color hold and access to healthcare, among other things.

“A pandemic occurs in the social, political, economic and environmental context in which we live. We know that racial and ethnic minorities already experience significant health disparities, particularly in those diseases that place someone at high risk of serious COVID-19 complications and death,” Sandra Crouse Quinn, the senior associate director at the Maryland Center for Health Equity, told

African Americans are statistically more prone to conditions like heart disease, diabetes and asthma, but many argue the disproportionate number of deaths is due to structural racism that’s been going on for years and is only being further highlighted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Many in the black community were recently angered when Surgeon General Jerome Adams used what some are calling offensive language to give advice to the African American community amid the pandemic. At a press conference last Friday, Adams asked black Americans to stop drinking and and doing drugs.

“Do it for your abuela,” Adams said. “Do it for your granddaddy, do it for your big mama, do it for your pop-pop.”

Not only were many offended by his choice of language, but also perceived it as another example in which authorities blame the black community for something in which they themselves are the victims, while also perpetuating false narratives about communities of color. 

“Suggesting that behaviors of black communities are the root of the disparate conditions by which African Americans are subjected because of racialized forms of oppression is morally incomprehensible and practically irresponsible,” said Valencia Harvey, a doctoral student studying in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Black people are not succumbing to the coronavirus because their ‘behaviors’ alone have made them more susceptible, but economic disparities in wealth accrual is inextricably related to the ways in which Blacks are more susceptible to pre-existing health issues.”

Harvey added that, in general, people of color are “more susceptible to lower qualities of life, rendering them more vulnerable to disease.”

Statistically, people of color also make up a large amount of those who don’t have the privilege to work from home and also can’t afford to stop working. Only 16.2% of Hispanic workers and 19.7% of black workers can telework, according to the Economy Policy Institute.

“We know that many communities of color do the jobs that can only be done in the workplace and have no sick leave; they literally will not be paid if they don’t work,” Quinn said. 

Harvey called this fact a part of a “capitalist exploitation.”

“The most vulnerable are exploited at times during crisis, [and] the wealthy don't suddenly sacrifice their comfort,” Harvey said. “Frontline black laborers serving in essential jobs endure stressful working and living environments. These additional burdens are often detrimental to mental and physical health.“

If a black person does get sick, access to healthcare becomes another issue.

The CDC reports that African Americans are more likely to report that they can’t see a doctor due to costs.

“We also know that since 2017, the Trump administration has been dismantling the Affordable Care Act to the extent it can, and the number of uninsured is rising again,” Quinn said. “There is a documented history of health professionals failing to provide the standard of care for people of color.”

While the numbers may seem alarming, Quinn said she isn’t at all surprised at them. The H1N1 swine flu pandemic had similar effects, according to studies.

“Pandemics often are fed by social and economic factors — overcrowded housing, poverty, lack of health care, and more," Quinn said. "In the H1N1 pandemic, our national survey research found that the inability to social distance — whether because your work had to be done in the workplace, no sick leave, need to take public transit, and living in larger households — contributed to excess cases of H1N1.” 

In order to battle the effects the coronavirus is having in the black community, Quinn said it’s necessary to increase testing and make it readily available for communities of color. She added that it’s absolutely necessary for people to be able to get medical care, whether or not they are insured. 

Quinn told that studies show show that African Americans have the most distrust of a flu vaccine working and also have shown to be consistently less likely to vaccinate for the seasonal flue. Keeping that information in mind, Quinn continued, it is absolutely necessary to emphasize the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine once it’s available.

Although Quinn hopes these necessary actions will be taken, the disproportionate number of black people that are dying from novel coronavirus continues to be a reminder of ever-present inequalities, she said.

Harvey agreed, adding: "Long-standing racial inequalities never disappear, they metastasize in times of crises."