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Not just skin-deep: The layered impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority communities

(Photo courtesy of Vivian Tien)

In a myriad of ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered people’s social and health behaviors. Beyond the individual level, the pandemic exacerbates systemic inequalities that have until recently been left largely unacknowledged. Between increasing unemployment rates and periods of infection rates rising, minority communities are disproportionately experiencing the effects of the pandemic.

Although inequality is not always quantifiable, racial disparities become overwhelmingly clear in the incidence trends of COVID-19.

In an effort to provide context for trends of COVID-19 cases, projects such as The COVID Tracking Project have taken the initiative to collect racial data on COVID-19 cases and mortalities from each state. Although some concerns exist surrounding the unstandardized methods of data collection in each state and the lack of reporting from some states such as North Dakota, the data is useful in providing a general idea of several troubling trends within the current pandemic.

As the data demonstrates, racial disparities in part stem from social determinants of health, which are factors that describe external conditions that affect people’s quality of life and long-term health, such as socioeconomic status, housing, and employment.

Social determinants of health play a key role in assessing the social and health risks that minority communities face during the pandemic, ultimately contributing to overall trends of COVID-19 cases and mortalities.

Social determinants of health play a key role in assessing the social and health risks that minority communities face during the pandemic.

Data from The COVID Tracking Project in 2020 reveals that although the 20 U.S. counties with the highest infection rates have a majority of non-Hispanic white people, the 20 counties with the highest mortality rates are disproportionately African American.

Among communities of color, social determinants of health within the African American community point towards higher social vulnerability to contracting illnesses. As a Chicago study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in 2020 adds, social vulnerability — or a culmination of social determinants of health such as percentage of poverty, median household income, and employment ratio — is high for highly-segregated African American communities in Chicago, translating to higher rates of mortality from COVID-19.

These social factors, coupled with the tendency for the African American community to have comorbidities that exacerbate the effects of COVID-19, enhance health risk factors and increase mortality rates from the virus.

Similarly, although Asian, Latin, and Native American communities tend to face lesser disparities in health outcomes than African American communities, all communities of color have social determinants of health that contribute to a predisposed risk of being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, communities of color are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 because they tend to live in crowded conditions, lack health insurance coverage, and face barriers to higher education due to socioeconomic status.

Furthermore, as a 2020 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found, non-white populations such as the African American, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Hispanic communities are overrepresented in frontline industries such as health care, child care and social services, and building cleaning services.

Compared to the 37% of Asian Americans and 30% of non-Latino whites that had the ability to work at home, only 20% of African Americans and 16% of Latinos had that luxury, according to data collected between 2017 and 2018 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Moreover, these disparities have likely worsened due to rising unemployment rates and falling wages, especially because barriers to educational access disproportionately affect minorities and lead to less stable jobs.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights existing systemic issues in the healthcare and educational system. Social determinants of health are key factors in evaluating racial infection and mortality trends and can direct public health efforts to minimize social vulnerability within minority communities.

The collective population must also recognize that systemic inequalities make minority communities highly vulnerable.

Although individuals have the power to alter their behaviors on an individual level by social distancing and staying home if they have the ability to do so, the collective population must also recognize that systemic inequalities make minority communities highly vulnerable. This understanding will foster and guide policies that work on reducing the disparities that minorities face in areas such as health care and education.

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