A pandemic, by its very nature, is supposed to be nondiscriminatory. Its victims include those from every class, race, religion, and ethnicity. During the Black Death members of the noble and, leading religious classes perished alongside the peasants and prostitutes. Throughout history, outbreaks of smallpox claimed countless victims among the royal families of Europe and also the street urchins. Following the various pandemic of history, the masses counted among the dead always include a wide spectrum from nearly all segments of society.
On the surface, these conditions hold today during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen the rich and famous as well as the poor and forgotten contract the virus and die. Their names evaporate into the growing statistics of death around the globe. That massive statistic measures the historical impact of COVID-19. Today more than 181,000 people have officially died by the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. The vast majority of that number has been counted in the last 6 weeks. On a nation by nation comparison, more of them are American than any other nationality.
But there have also been trends among the dead and dying that mark this pandemic as unique compared to the previous pandemics of history. These trends reflect the peculiar design of our society and illuminate our sight of systemic fractures within the US.
Race and class do not cause the coronavirus to spread nor do they increase the likelihood of death. A black person is not more susceptible to the virus than a white person. The factors that contribute to the spread and severity of the virus outbreak are simple:
- High population density (people living close to one another)
- A lack of social distancing (people not separating from one another)
- Weak healthcare systems (failing to catch and treat the virus early)
- Comorbidities or preexisting health conditions among the infected individuals and populations (making them more physically vulnerable when they get the virus)
- Age (Elderly populations are more vulnerable because they usually have more preexisting conditions than younger populations.)
We can effectively gauge where the next hot spots will be by measuring the presence and extent of these five factors. In some instances, like New York, all five factors are not in place but the factors which are present took a large enough toll upon the local population that a hot spot grew. In New York, the issue was not a weak healthcare system. Age, population density, a lack of social distancing, and comorbidities offered the perfect mix so that the local healthcare system, strong as it was, quickly faced the threat of being overrun.
The perfect storm exists in areas like New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, and others who assume the unlucky role of having all five factors in place. It is in these locations that we have also seen another concerning trend. The deaths and infections among minorities are significantly higher than the wider population.
In Louisiana and Chicago, 70% of the COVID-19 deaths have been among African Americans. In Mississippi, that number is slightly higher. In Alabama, South Carolina, Maryland, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee black populations have contributed to more than 50% of the COVID-19 deaths to date, even while they represent far less than half the population in these locales. According to a report from the Brookings Institute, in every state where racial data is available, blacks have far higher rates of contracting and dying from the virus than do whites.
Latinos make up 34% of all coronavirus deaths in the New York outbreak. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Latinos are more than twice as likely to die from the virus than white people are.
Meanwhile, an outbreak of the virus among Native-Americans living on reservations appears inevitable. Experts say this population is particularly vulnerable due to poor healthcare and preexisting conditions, although lower population density on the reservations may slow the spread of the virus.
If race and ethnicity do not make a person inherently more susceptible to the virus, we must understand the issue driving these disproportionate statistics are environmental. The environment in which these minorities dwell is more vulnerable to the virus. In the cities and states where the pandemic will spread and grow in the coming days, these trends will continue because of systemic issues of inequity within American society.
This is a trend that counters the historical story of pandemics. Unlike previous outbreaks and pandemics since the time of the Plague of Athens, when we look beneath the surface, the COVID-19 pandemic is discriminatory. Specific elements and groups of our society are more vulnerable to the spread and threats of the virus. They are more vulnerable because of the systemic structure of America’s society and economy.
Those most vulnerable are those who cannot afford to miss work for the sake of stay at home orders. They are the unnamed grocery stockers, garbage collectors and other silent elements of our society whose work we depend upon to keep neighborhoods and the country going. They are those whose lifestyle required cheaper and less healthy diets that made them more susceptible to diabetes and heart disease and therefore more vulnerable to the pandemic when it arrived at their doorsteps. They are those who have lived for decades, and probably generations, trapped in relative poverty. In the US a disproportionate number of these lowest-income Americans are also African America, Hispanic, and Native American.
The pandemic is amplifying systemic flaws within the American culture and economy. The pandemic is booming among segments of the American population bound together by poverty and decrepit infrastructure. These minority populations are not contracting and dying from the virus in more significant numbers because of their individual race or identity. They are more vulnerable to the virus because their collective race and identity more prominently entrapped within systemic inequities of the American system.