In Maryland and other states, the coronavirus has exposed deep racial inequality

Black Lives Matter activists protest in New York City. Courtesy of All-Nite Images.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

The coronavirus is impacting all of us, and while that’s terrifying, I know many people have found a small sense of comfort in knowing they’re not alone during this time. But while COVID-19 infects the rich and poor alike, the pandemic has highlighted inequalities that have long existed in the United States. 

The coronavirus is killing black residents at a disproportionately high rate. While the federal government has been slow to release COVID-19 data by race, available data show that about one-third of those who have died are black, though black people only make up about 14 percent of the population in the areas covered. 

In Maryland, despite accounting for only about 31 percent of the state’s population, black residents made up about 47 percent of patients and about 48 percent of coronavirus-related deaths where race data was recorded. In New York City, which is facing a particularly brutal outbreak, black people are twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts.

If we ever hope to successfully combat the virus, we need to address the racial and economic inequality underlying its disproportionate effects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings to control the spread of the coronavirus. However, black men have expressed fears that wearing masks would expose them to racial profiling and harassment. Some have already been kicked out of stores for wearing protective masks. Profiling — and its potentially deadly consequences — don’t just disappear during a pandemic. If we ignore that reality, we ignore a large portion of our population that deserves protection during this crisis.

The consequences of racial inequality extend beyond reservations about masks. Black workers are also more likely to hold jobs that don’t allow them to work from home, which makes it harder to avoid infection. 

Black people also experience higher rates of obesity, higher levels of stress hormones and higher blood pressure, which research shows may be related to higher rates of discrimination and bias. Black children are also two times more likely than others to develop asthma, which researchers have traced to the segregation of black families in neighborhoods near polluted areas. All of these conditions place black people at higher risk for bad outcomes from COVID-19.

And when black Americans find themselves experiencing possible symptoms, there are racial barriers to accessing testing and treatment. Black Americans are more likely to be uninsured, which presents added barriers to accessing treatment in a healthcare system that is overwhelmed with patients, both insured and uninsured. 

According to one analysis, doctors were also found to be less likely to refer black Americans with signs of infection for testing. The subjectivity of reporting COVID-19 symptoms — combined with evidence that black people in pain are undertreated when compared to white people — amplifies the risk for black Americans who contract the disease. 

With all of this in mind, we need our leaders to realize that we cannot possibly hope to halt this pandemic if we ignore the needs of marginalized people and the prevalence of racial inequality. This starts with coordinating responses to COVID-19’s spread that take structural inequalities into account. Being black or belonging to any other marginalized group should never be a risk factor, and in a public health crisis like this one, we can’t leave anyone behind.

Caterina Ieronimo is a sophomore government and politics major. She can be reached at ieronimocaterina@gmail.com.

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