Person wearing mask

Racism kills through COVID

race, biologyJohn Gordon, Content DeveloperJul 20, 2020

As dangerous as COVID-19 is (and it is dangerous), you’ll probably be alright if you get it. Most people recover without hospitalization, and many people don’t even experience symptoms.

Scientists don’t completely understand why some people become dangerously ill from the disease while others clear it without much trouble. But there are some risk factors that can increase your chances of having a severe—or even fatal—case of COVID-19.

Being elderly can make your infection worse.

That makes sense. As people age, their immune systems often weaken. It’s harder for older bodies to fight off infections.

People with underlying medical conditions are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

That makes sense, too. If your immune system is weakened, or the organs affected by the disease are already struggling, it stands to reason that COVID-19 could be worse for you.

And being Black in America means you’re more likely to have a severe case of COVID-19.

That shouldn’t make sense, because there’s no innate reason for it to be true—being born with darker skin shouldn’t make a person more vulnerable to this disease. But people of color in this country experience societal and institutional racism, and the effects of that racism extend to a person’s health, the healthcare they receive, and how they are likely to die. In the current pandemic, Black people in some states account for twice the number of infections expected given their share of the population (e.g., Black people might make up 40% of a state’s COVID-19 infections even though they make up only 20% of its population). And if you’re Black you may be more than 350% more likely to die of COVID-19 than if you were white.

(Take a look at this article for interactive visualizations of racial disparities in COVID-19.)

There’s a lot of debate around this disease, but these are hard numbers. And we have to be careful interpreting them.

These figures don’t mean that there’s an underlying biological reason that this disease is affecting Black people more severely—there’s no gene tied to darker skin that makes the disease worse.

There’s also no reason to believe that Black people are behaving in ways that makes them more susceptible to COVID-19 than white people. And this data shouldn’t be used to suggest that COVID-19 is a “Black problem,” so other people can worry about it less. (This article discusses these issues with much more nuance than I have. You should check it out.)

The medical community is still learning how and why COVID-19 affects some people worse than others, but many of the reasons it’s affecting people of color more severely are already pretty clear. (This post mostly refers to Black Americans, but COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting other people of color as well, particularly some Native American and Latino groups.) People of color in America, on average, have less access to quality healthcare than white people do. It follows, then, that African Americans have higher rates of underlying health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease, which are all risk factors for severe cases of COVID-19. And people of color are more likely to have essential, frontline jobs—work that can’t be done from home, and increases the risk of exposure to the virus.

These risks are not “natural.” They are direct outcomes of systems that limit access to wealth and opportunity by people of color.

It’s happening through averages and risks and likelihoods, but make no mistake: these systems are killing people.

Organizations like the Science Museum of Minnesota are sometimes told to “leave politics out of it and stick to the science.” But the fact is science, health, politics, race, and racism are tied together. To leave racial politics out of the story of COVID-19 would mean leaving science out of the story, too. And this issue isn’t new—COVID-19 has only exacerbated existing inequities in health and healthcare.

As we figure out how to fight COVID-19, we need to figure out how to fight it for everyone. No group has less right to be healthy than any other group. The disparities shown by the data reveal the extent of racism in our society. And however painful it may be to acknowledge this problem, we can’t fix it until we face it.