Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP
Black and minority Americans are more likely to be infected and die from COVID-19 because structural racism has left those populations with inferior health, housing, and economic conditions, witnesses told a House subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Even as protests against police violence roil the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect or kill minority Americans at devastating rates – at least one independent report found black Americans dying at three times the rate of white Americans.
Witnesses speaking to a House of Representatives subcommittee on racial disparities said the COVID-19 pandemic called for a “truth and reconciliation” process and federal funding for minority health programs to counteract long-running health disparities.
“I have never been as scared for my patients as I have been the past few months,” New York City emergency department doctor Ushé Blackstock told the members of Congress. As the pandemic engulfed New York City and it became the world hotpot, she said her patient caseload shifted from a diverse group of New Yorkers to predominantly black Americans.
Among the most important risk factors for death from COVID-19 are chronic conditions, such as diabetes and uncontrolled asthma. Those disparities have been magnified by the pandemic, witnesses said.
In just one example of disparities in an important risk factor, 30% of black Americans and 29% of Latino Americans reported suffering from diabetes, compared to only 17% of white Americans, according to a large 2017 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Living in this country has essentially made black Americans sick,” said Blackstock. “Over the last three months we have witnessed a crisis layered upon a crisis,” she said. “This country desperately needs a truth and reconciliation process.”
Black Americans have been especially devastated by the pandemic, but the toll has cut across racial minorities in the US. Latino Americans are disproportionately likely to be infected with the disease. Native Americans have also suffered heavily. In just one example, Native Americans in Arizona make up less than 5% of the population, but 14% of deaths.
“Systemic racial inequities have festered in our society for years, and are now magnified by the coronavirus,” said the South Carolina Democratic congressman James Clyburn. “This racial inequity is particularly stark in healthcare, and has been laid bare by this pandemic.”
Witnesses also called for better data collection to target resources to geographic areas and demographics where infection is spreading. Testing has long lagged in the federal government response. Congress passed a law requiring the administration to collect and provide certain demographic information about COVID-19 infections, but the Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin called the report “a joke”.
However, not all lawmakers were willing to lay the disparities at the feet of structural racism.
“We need to be careful when interpreting the data,” said Mark Green, a Republican congressman from Tennessee. “If we draw conclusions this is all due to some race bias in healthcare, we may miss that we need to sterilize public buses.”
At the same time the subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis heard testimony, the House subcommittee on appropriations heard from Dr. Robert Redfield. Redfield heads the CDC, which is responsible for controlling infectious diseases within the United States.
“We must lessen the impact on African Americans, Hispanics, Latino Americans, Indians, and Alaska natives,” said Redfield. “This nation is not only hearing a wakeup call, we’re hearing a clamoring for equity and healing.”