Pandemic lays bare the systemic racism in our nation
Americans have been suffering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for more than nine months, though the severity of these effects varies across racial and ethnic groups.
In the United States, both nationally and within Vermont, the systemic racism that people from racial and ethnic minority communities face poses serious health consequences.
Within these groups, the inequities presented as a consequence of systemic racism range from implicit bias among healthcare providers to economic gaps that force racial and ethnic minorities to continue working in-person despite the risk of contracting COVID. Accordingly, the racial and ethnic disparities in the rates of infection and death from COVID emphasize these injustices, and they are crucial to examine to understand the effects of systemic racism on health.
Data illustrate the health inequalities that non-white Americans are facing. For example, CDC data shows the age-adjusted rate of hospitalization for COVID across racial and ethnic groups in the United States. From March 1 through Dec. 12, hospitalization per 100,000 people is 604 for Latinx Americans, 584 for Indigenous Americans or Alaska Natives, 527 for Black Americans, and 181 for Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, while white Americans have the lowest rate of 165. In other words, people in the United States who are Latino, American Indian, Alaska Native, Black, and Asian or Pacific Islander have a higher rate of hospitalization due to COVID compared to white people.
Where do these health disparities come from? For one, systemic racism plagues the American healthcare system. Barriers in access to healthcare have disproportionately impacted Americans of racial and ethnic minority communities, and evidence dating back decades shows that these groups receive notably lower-quality healthcare than white Americans. Research has shown that some white healthcare providers hold false notions about biological differences between Black and white patients with regards to pain: Black Americans are not always provided with adequate treatment for their pain, unlike their white counterparts.
Furthermore, non-white Americans are less likely to seek treatment than white Americans. Among other motivating factors, the United States history of experimentation on non-white Americans has caused mistrust of medicine among some racial and ethnic minority community members. Non-white Americans are also less likely to have health insurance, which deters people from seeking treatment. As a consequence of healthcare discrepancies, non-white Americans face higher morbidity and mortality rates from chronic diseases, and more recently from COVID.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified five significant factors that increase non-white Americans’ COVID risks: discrimination, healthcare access and utilization, occupation, gaps in education/income/wealth, and housing. Non-white Americans face severe educational and economic inequality, which intertwines with inequities in housing and job opportunities. People from racial and ethnic minority groups more commonly have jobs that require in-person work, increasing their exposure to the virus. Finally, some minority individuals find themselves in crowded living environments where COVID can spread rapidly.
Systemic racism-related health inequalities have global effects and are also unambiguously present in the Green Mountain State. Vermont, the second-whitest state in the nation, is also witnessing severe racial disparities in the context of COVID-19. Though white Vermonters represent the majority of the state’s cases, African American, Asian, and Hispanic Vermonters are testing positive at higher rates than their white counterparts. According to the Vermont Department of Health, Black Vermonters are suffering from the highest rates of COVID. As of Dec. 16, the rate per 10,000 people is 335 for Black Vermonters as compared to 84 for white Vermonters. While they comprise 1.4% of the state’s population, 4.8% of those who have tested positive for COVID are Black. Asian and Hispanic Vermonters are testing positive at rates of 240 per 10,000 and 105 per 10,000, respectively.
The data show that Black and Brown Americans have endured the consequences of COVID at substantially higher rates than their white counterparts, illuminating the vast inequities present in the American healthcare system. Systemic racism, manifesting as a variety of social and economic factors, continues to place American racial and ethnic minority communities at immense health risk.
As the virus continues to spread, we must grapple with the reality that the pandemic afflicts some communities more deeply than others. To improve health outcomes for everyone in our country, we must acknowledge and address these health disparities as a direct result of systemic racism, demand action from our elected officials, and urge our healthcare providers to practice actively anti-racist medicine.
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