The Color of Covid: Why the Virus is Biased to Black People

We know viruses don’t discriminate right , or do they? What if viruses could apply the management concept of strategic planning? If so, the key goals of Covid-19 would be to spread, replicate and kill expeditiously. And if that’s the case, race and ethnicity should not matter. But, if Covid was strategic, it would focus its efforts on where it can be the most successful, similar to a business focusing on its target market. To achieve its key goals, the virus could simply focus on two variables– race and place. A person’s racial ethnicity and where they live would provide more than enough data for the virus to make a decision to enter that zip code, neighborhood and commence operations of spreading, replicating and killing.

How is that? Because the virus can predict with considerable accuracy who is the most vulnerable to becoming infected and dying. But how? The virus can easily identify which neighborhoods are racially segregated, either mostly White or mostly Black and Hispanic. Then the virus would know that racially segregated neighborhoods that are majority Black and Hispanic are poor neighborhoods. Poor neighborhoods also mean a high likelihood of densely populated housing, existing health conditions, lack of access to health care facilities, and lack of health insurance. The perfect ingredients for Covid to flourish and begin infecting the people in its target market; Black and Hispanic residents.

Covid-19 data clearly shows racial disparities in confirmed cases and deaths, but many people may wonder why do these racial disparities exist?

Racial Frames are how people explain racial disparities and inequitable outcomes. A few typical racial frames are the following:

o  Personal responsibility and individualism: belief that people control their fates regardless of social position, and that individual behaviors and choices determine material outcomes.

o  Equal opportunity: belief that health, well-being, employment, education, and wealth accumulation are “level playing fields” and that race is no longer a barrier to progress in these areas.

Applying Racial Frames, we can discover how some people may be interpreting the racial disparities of Covid-19 in the U.S. and answering the questions below many may be perplexed about:

Why are black people more infected with Covid-19 than other racial groups?

Lovely Warren, the Mayor of Rochester NY stated “I don’t think our community is taking it as seriously as it should.”

State Representative Napoleon Bracy of Alabama where Blacks made up 52% of COVID-19 deaths echoed similar beliefs stating, “I think it’s a few things, underlying health conditions that many people in the African-American community face, but also we have to just go ahead and make sure that people are doing the proper things.” “You can look at things as early as this weekend where, from the Toulminville area in Mobile to Prichard to I-65, where people were having parties and it’s kind of like they’re just not taking it as serious as they should,” he explained.

Another State Representative, Democrat Marc Veasey of Texas was also “shocked” when he saw two large gatherings of young black adults in the south side of Fort Worth, and that police officers did not break up the gatherings despite stay-at-home orders. He posted a video of the gatherings on Facebook. He told the Fort Worth Star Telegram, “After tonight, I’m convinced that we need more stringent stay at home orders. It’s clear to me that if we’re going to stop what we’ve seen in New Orleans, Milwaukee, St. Louis … if we don’t want that to be Fort Worth, to be Tarrant County, then we have to get serious about having more strict orders,” said Veasey, who was out running what he called an essential errand with his wife. Veasey was disappointed the officers in the area did nothing to disperse the crowds, but acknowledged they’re in a tough situation. It’s also interesting that Veasey did not generalize that police officers are not taking the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders seriously.

 All three of the above statements are Racial frames that suggest that Black community behavior (not taking Covid seriously) or personal responsibility is the reason racial disparities exist. But if that’s true what about the white people across the nation and even the world, who have been caught not taking social distancing seriously? The BBC showed video interviews of white and black students both not taking the virus seriously. A large group of white Brits took to crowded pubs to chant “f*** coronavirus!” And majority white students from Clemson University hosted a party of 100 people in South Carolina after the University suggested guidance. Last month thousands of people in Florida (largely whites) ignored social distancing guideline despite warnings from public health experts. These facts cultivate another question. Since whites are also not taking the virus seriously, why are they not dying equally as Blacks? It appears that some individuals rather than an entire racial group can be generalized to not be taking social distancing seriously.

Another reason Black Americans are likely to become infected with Covid-19 is due to the nature of their jobs, which during the current pandemic they are considered essential workers. Some of those jobs include caregivers, cashiers, sanitation workers, farm workers and public transit employees. Black workers are less likely to have jobs in professional and business services which have capacity for telecommuting, due to their lack of education, which is mainly due to housing segregation, as well as occupational discrimination and social network. Roughly 30 percent of employed Black Americans work in the education and health services industry and 10 percent in retail, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A few final reasons Blacks become more infected may be the fact that they are more likely than whites to live in densely populated housing. Only 44 percent of Blacks own their home compared to 74 percent of whites. Blacks are more likely to live in multifamily housing units while whites are likely to live in single family housing. (2015 American Community Survey).

Black Americans are also more likely to have to rely on public transportation to get to those essential low-income jobs (34 percent) than whites (14 percent), according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center.

Once infected, why are so many black people dying from Covid-19?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated that “existing health disparities have made the outbreak worse for the African American community.”

Do Black people really have more existing health disparities and worse health conditions than other racial groups that increase their chances of dying from Covid-19? Yes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes are more likely to occur in Blacks than Whites, Asians and Latinx groups, but again, why?

Maybe it’s because many Black people live in poverty and they cannot afford healthy food and they simply make poor food and eating choices

Dr. Ibram X Kendi pointed out in his Atlantic article that Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, argued that “in the South, country white people and country black people eat the same kind of food” and wondered “to what extent black folks all over the country still eat the traditional soul food diet with lots of grease, salt, pork, sugar, and carbs.” This statement is also suggesting that Black American’s behaviors (poor eating habits) or personal responsibility may be the reason they have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19 fatalities.

A 2011 study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that once socioeconomic status (education and income) were controlled for, the Black-White differences in the healthy eating index decreased significantly. The authors of the study stated the following: “ours and previous findings suggest that disparities in obesity in the US are not predominantly due to individual psychosocial differences regarding between Blacks and Whites, but may be more affected by their broader social environments. Poor-quality retail food environments in conjunction with limited individual economic resources, contribute to increased risk of obesity within ethnic minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations.

Another study suggested that race and class do not fully explain the disparities between Blacks, Whites and Hispanics, but rather housing segregation is a critical component. The study found that when Blacks who lived in segregated neighborhoods (majority Black) were exposed to different health risks and variable access to health services based on where they lived. However, when Blacks lived in a racially mixed integrated neighborhood, even if it was a low-income neighborhood, the fact that it was still integrated, the authors found that disparities in hypertension, diabetes, smoking, obesity and health services utilization either vanished or were greatly reduced.

Conclusion and Summary

Being aware of the various Racial frames different people will apply when interpreting racial disparities of Covid-19 is critical. Government leaders must neutralize these narratives with a Racial Equity Frame to ensure all resident and stakeholders can survive and thrive in their communities. Leaders must be vigilant of the unique needs of the most vulnerable populations. Due to structural inequities as a result of historical and current segregation and discrimination, at the federal, state and local levels, we know the key determinants to health and well-being, and we can determine who will become infected and who will survive this current pandemic.

Institutional racism occurs when an organization creates polices or procedures that perpetuate inequities between racial groups intentionally or unintentionally, but inaction and neglect, or failure to address racial inequities, and allow inequities to remain is also institutional racism because as civil service leaders we are knowingly allowing harm to occur based on race and ethnicity. The only question now is will we have the courage to lead with Racial Equity to ensure all Americans have equal opportunity and to be healthy, and that race or place does not stifle their life chances.