The accumulating data confirmed what sparse indicators had suggested weeks ago. Now comes a potential second wave of disturbing data: African Americans also appear to be shortchanged even in testing for covid-19. That could make the racial disparities in rates of infection and death even worse.
Last week, Johns Hopkins University published a new map on its coronavirus resource site showing which states have publicly broken down their statistics by race. Most states (38) have begun to do so for the number of confirmed covid-19 cases, and more than half are now providing race-based data for deaths from the disease. But only Illinois and Kansas are reporting on that other crucial piece of the puzzle: who is getting tested.
In Illinois, African Americans make up an alarming 38.1 percent of coronavirus deaths and 24.2 percent of confirmed cases — both far out of proportion to their share of the population. What’s worse is that only 13.2 percent of those tested are black, suggesting that African Americans are being drastically underserved by the effort to control the spread of the disease. The same is true of Latino residents in Kansas: Their rate of infection is more than double that of non-Latino Kansans, yet they are being tested at a significantly lower rate.
If members of minority groups are not being tested at a rate commensurate to the threat they face, the country loses the opportunity to quarantine those who test positive before they have had the chance to spread the virus. And conducting contact tracing to find out who else is at risk is impeded.
The National Urban League — which had raised warning flags early in the pandemic about the potential for racial disparities in the response to covid-19 — is working with its affiliates to serve as testing centers in an effort to reach the most vulnerable communities. But that is not enough. There is general agreement that the disastrously slow rollout of testing nationally must be accelerated; a consensus is also needed to emphasize testing in those communities where people are more likely to become ill with covid-19 and to die. That is the only way to mount a response that will help protect everyone.
Public health officials report that deaths from covid-19 overwhelmingly occur among those with preexisting conditions. Millions of African Americans suffer from a preexisting condition not mentioned on medical charts: racial inequality. The effects of that inequality are reflected in poorer access to health care, greater incidence of chronic illnesses, heightened distrust of the health system and other institutions, and myriad other factors that can worsen covid-19’s impact.
Of the states that are reporting demographic data about coronavirus infections, a few have taken the valuable step of compiling and releasing the data by Zip code. Pinpointing where infections are happening will help public health workers understand the specific reasons why the virus is hitting some areas harder than others:
Is it because of a lack of access to health care in a particular neighborhood? Are people in some communities not hearing the message about social distancing or not believing what they’re hearing? Are there major essential employers in certain areas that need to take stronger measures to protect workers? (African Americans are disproportionately represented in jobs deemed essential — and are thus more likely to be exposed to the virus.) Are crowded housing conditions forcing sick people to expose family members to the infection?
The immediate need is to save lives in the hardest-hit communities, but the nation has a long-term task ahead to address the underlying conditions that made African Americans inordinately vulnerable to the pandemic. Ironically, data collection might have helped in that realm, too.
Race has distorted and subverted good policy in countless areas of American life — in housing, criminal justice and education, to name a few. It is usually only in retrospect, when the legacy of those failures becomes glaring and undeniable, that the country begins collecting the basic race-oriented data that could have revealed pernicious trends far earlier.
The disparity in how different races and different communities are suffering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is not inevitable. Better data guiding wiser leadership can prevent injustice from compounding this tragedy.