Blog Global Health Center COVID-19 Health Equity

COVID-19’s amplification of racial health inequities: A reflection about losing my people

Written by Kamaria Lee, MD candidate at Washington University in St. Louis; collaborator with the Global Health Center on the USAID-ASHA project to Improve Cancer Care in Guatemala

Recently, Americans have faced the reality that COVID-19 is not immune to the power of racial inequity. In honest efforts to promote a “we are all in this together” mentality, reduce racism towards Asian Americans, and dispel the myth that black people are immune to the virus, many politicians and community leaders have emphasized that COVID-19 does not discriminate. But new health department data along with healthcare workers’ anecdotes reveal otherwise. Not in the sense that the novel coronavirus infects some populations and not others—we all have a non-zero risk of being infected—but in the sense that the virus is finding it easy to follow the blueprint for racial health inequities that we have created. Just like with other illnesses, centuries of racism towards black Americans inside and outside of the healthcare system has allowed COVID-19 to devastate the black community.

Turning to the numbers, an April 7, 2020 review of preliminary racial data makes it clear that black Americans are dying from COVID-19 in horrifyingly disproportionate amounts. Blacks are 26% of Milwaukee County’s population but have been 73% of its COVID-19 deaths. The data is similar across the country, with blacks being 32% of Chicago’s population but 67% of deaths, and 32% of Louisiana’s population but 70% of deaths. In New York City, the Hispanic/Latino population is also over-represented in COVID-19 deaths; they are 29% of the population but make up 34% of the deaths (the data does not separate the Hispanic/Latino population by race). Lastly, here in our own community, all 12 individuals who died from COVID-19 in the City of St. Louis as of April 9th were black. That’s 100%.

All of this information has been overwhelming for me as a black physician-in-training. I get teary-eyed when I think about all of my people who are dying around me. I have seen the extra fear in my people’s eyes when they are in the hospital and there are few, if any, clinicians who look like them. I have felt the distrust my people have even of me, as for some my white coat makes me a part of the Ivory Tower. And, at the same time, I have also been uplifted by the proud smiles my people have when they see me enter their room as one of their own who is beating the odds. Thus, one question in particular has been on my mind: what do I do to stop my people from dying? I’m still unsure. I am working with other students and faculty to develop a plan, but it is hard not to be intimidated by the enormity of the problem. That said, as I wake up each day and learn about more of my people who have been taken too soon, I am motivated to do something. Because each time I lose more of my people, I lose a part of me.