• Samantha Marmet

Racial Disparity in COVID-19 Infection and Death Explained

The COVID-19 pandemic is now one of the largest mass death events in modern times, claiming the lives of over 500,000 Americans as of March 2021. However, the disease has not impacted all communities equally. Certain social factors – called social determinants of health – which more often impact non-white racial and ethnic groups have made these communities more vulnerable to COVID-19. These social determinants of health include where someone may live or work, their ability to access and afford medical care, their income level, and others. A better understanding of how these factors have worsened the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color will help to create reforms and policies that deliver greater health equality in America.

Research published by APM Research Labs studies differences in COVID-19 death rates between certain ethnic and racial groups. The research uses a scientific method called age-adjustment which allows researchers to compare health statistics – like COVID-19 death rates - among different groups, especially when they have different age distributions. This is important when studying the death rates of COVID-19 because death rates for the disease rise with age (particularly ages 75 and older).

The study shows devastating COVID-19 death rates among Black and Indigenous Americans, who suffer the highest death rates nationally. About 1 in 750 Black and Indigenous Americans has died of COVID-19. Additionally, the COVID-19 death rates of Pacific Islanders, Latino, Black, and Indigenous Americans are double or more than that of White and Asian Americans. According to APM Research Lab, Indigenous, Black, and Latino Americans are 2.7 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts.

Why is this the case?

Differences in health among ethnic groups are often due to the social determinants of health mentioned earlier. These social determinants are “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age” (CDC). This means that social determinants include access to quality healthcare and medicine, education, economic stability, healthy foods, air quality, working and living conditions, etc. Understanding the social determinants of different communities helps explain the different rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality. For example, data suggests that essential workers who are more often exposed to COVID-19 infection due to unsafe working conditions are more likely to be people of color and immigrants. Other factors include densely populated housing, higher rates of poverty, and greater incidence of chronic diseases, such as type-2 diabetes, in Black and Indigenous communities.

In conclusion, the findings of the social determinants of the COVID-19 study support that the difference in rates of infection and death among minority groups – and in particular Black Americans, is primarily because of social conditions, not because of biological or genetic factors. From these two studies, we see that COVID-19 is shining greater light on the health disparities that are negatively impacting minority groups in the United States. These findings matter for the future of health equity because they reveal the critical need to address social determinants of health, as health and disease are social conditions, not just biological ones.


Speaking Plainly:

  • COVID-19 has not impacted all communities equally.

  • Racial minorities are dying of COVID-19 complications at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.

  • There are many social factors, called social determinants of health, that play into COVID-19 infection and mortality rates.

  • These social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age.