Politicizing the Demographic Disparities in Death Rates from Coronavirus

Although African Americans constitute just 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, they account for more than 42 percent of all COVID-19 deaths. African Americans are our “sickest sick” with the virus as they comprise more than 33 percent of all those hospitalized with Coronavirus.

During an April 8 press conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci revealed the significant racial disparities in hospitalizations and death rates from coronavirus and advised that “when all this is over . . . and we will get over coronavirus, there will still be health disparities, which we really do need to address in the African American community.”

While there had been no attempt to politicize the fact that males of all races and ethnicities are dying from COVID-19 at significantly higher rates than females, the racial disparity data has opened the floodgates of blame directed toward the Trump Administration. Not a single lawmaker has tried to claim that unequal access to healthcare is contributing to the disproportionate number of males who have died from Coronavirus, but lawmakers are already claiming that African Americans are dying because of our privatized health care system.

On March 27—long before the public release of the official racial disparity data—U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), as well as U.S. Representatives Robin L. Kelly (D-Ill.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass) demanded that the Department of Health and Human Services publicize racial data on coronavirus cases. The lawmakers knew that, as with all public health crises, the people who suffer the greatest casualties will be those with the greatest number of preexisting conditions.

They also knew—or should have known—that long before the coronavirus crisis, African Americans (especially African American men) had significantly higher numbers of preexisting conditions than any other racial or ethnic group. And they knew that politicizing the demographic data on racial disparities would bolster their case for universal healthcare.

The claim that African Americans do not have access to healthcare ignores the fact that all Americans over 65 have access to Medicare. This is the population that is most overwhelmingly harmed by COVID-19. For those younger than 65, Hispanics have the highest rate of those uninsured with 16.1 percent, while the uninsured rate among blacks is 10.6 percent. Yet, Hispanics—who presumably do not have as much access to healthcare as African Americans—do not suffer the same high death rates from coronavirus that blacks experience.

Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren’s universal healthcare—in theory—could make healthcare more available to 100 percent of the uninsured. But, it would do little to address some of the reasons for the racial disparities in coronavirus mortality rates for African Americans.

Being obese or overweight are the strongest predictors of complications from COVID-19.  France’s chief epidemiologist, Jean-Francois Delfraissy, head of the scientific council that advises the government on the epidemic, has concluded that being overweight is a major risk for people infected with the new coronavirus and that the United States is particularly vulnerable because of the high levels of obesity here.

In an interview with France Info Radio, Delfraissy said, “those who are overweight really need to be careful . . . That’s why we’re worried about our friends in America where the problem of obesity is well known and where they will probably have the most problems because of obesity.”

In 2018, black adults had the highest overweight and obesity rates of any race or ethnicity in the United States, followed by American Indians/Alaska natives, and Hispanics. In 2018, 73 percent of all black adults were either overweight or obese. Among whites, the obesity rate is 65 percent. Asians and Pacific Islanders had the lowest overweight and obesity rates which helps to explain their higher recovery rates from coronavirus—and significantly lower death rates. Overweight and obesity rates vary substantially by state; those states with large percentages of African Americans have higher rates of those identified as overweight or obese.

Indeed, being overweight or obese is a significant predictor of death from COVID-19 primarily because it is also a significant predictor of Type II diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease and COPD—all underlying causes of death from the virus.

It is tragic that the racial disparities are already being politicized because it takes attention away from the real reasons for the high mortality rates for African Americans.

Blacks had begun to close the racial gap in mortality rates from the days of dramatic differences in life expectancy. In 2019, the gap was at its narrowest ever. Today, in New York City—before COVID-19 struck—life expectancy among blacks reached 76.2 years. That is still five years behind the rest of the city; but in the 1980s, as The Economist pointed out recently, black men in Harlem had a worse chance of living to the age of 65 than did men in Bangladesh.

Blacks in the 1980s died of heart disease at double the rate of whites. They died of liver cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism or hepatitis at 10 times the rate of whites, and they were 14 times more likely to be murdered than whites.

The incremental progress of closing the racial gap in mortality rates that has been made for the last century may be delayed by coronavirus—but it does not have to stop. If progressive politicians have their way, however, the premier healthcare system and the heroic healthcare workers who are saving so many lives will themselves become victims of the legacy of COVID-19 in the continued march toward single-payer healthcare.

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