Amy Patterson By: Amy Patterson
Professor of Politics
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10 Apr 2020 : US racial disparities and COVID

We know that health disparities are rampant in the United States. Rates of maternal mortality, pre-term births, hypertension, and diabetes are all higher among African Americans, even controlling for education and income levels. Native Americans face high rates of alcoholism, violence, and drug addiction, while Latinos face rising rates of diabetes. So maybe the numerous media stories that emerged this week in the US about how these health disparities are evident in the COVID pandemic should not surprise us. But still, they are shocking! In a place like Milwaukee—which is a pretty “white” city--American Americans are 80+ percent of the deaths and half of the cases (But they are only 26% of the population.) We know that the co-morbidities that increase the risk of mortality from COVID (diabetes, hypertension) are higher among African Americans than white Americans. We know that access to care that is of high quality is more problematic for all racial and ethnic minorities in the US. We know that health care in the US South—where many African Americans, and increasingly Latinos, live—is often problematic in terms of quality and access. (Some states still haven’t accepted federal funding under the Affordable Care Act, for example.) And we know that racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to work in relatively low-wage jobs, including those in caregiving, service, and hospitality industries. Many of these jobs—if they are still around—require people to be in contact with others. (No “working remotely” when you are a nursing home attendant.) The stress of low incomes—and now unemployment—further diminishes health.

What is the most surprising, though, is that we have relatively incomplete data on the racial profiles of people who are dying of COVID, with only a few cities and states keeping such data. Seems we were so fixated on the age issue (who is dying—the young? The old?) that we forgot about race. But, on the other hand, majority white America often forgets about race. (That’s what racial privilege allows the dominant race to do.) Numerous studies point out that health research often does not take into account racial and ethnic differences of patients as a factor affecting outcomes. Yet another way that racism undermines the right to health for all in America. COVID confirms a bigger pattern, one that continues to infuse American society.

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