As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the globe, the rapid proliferation of the virus in the United States has served as somewhat of a cautionary tale. Delayed government action and the inability of market forces to meet demand shocks have allowed things to spiral out of control. Now, the United States has nearly three times as many cases as the next closest country (Spain) — and that number is growing exponentially.
And within the United States, certain demographics seem to be disproportionately adversely affected by the coronavirus. It has become common knowledge that the disease has a higher fatality rate in older victims, but new data suggests that people of colour are also especially at risk. And this trend has been documented in various locales throughout the country.
For example, at the time of writing this, five Florida counties had already reported both higher hospitalization and death rates among Blacks and Hispanics. Moving north to my home state of Michigan, black Americans make up only 14% of the population but, so far, make up a full third of COVID-19 cases. And when it comes to coronavirus deaths, they are even more over-represented.
In other spots in the Midwest, the discrepancy is even larger. Take Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, for instance. The locality is only about 26% black, yet are half of all confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly three-quarters of all deaths.
Things have gotten so bad in Louisiana that, on Monday, Governor John Bel Edwards (D) spoke out about it. Calling the trend “disturbing”, he went on to reveal that “Slightly more than 70% of all [coronavirus] deaths in Louisiana are of African Americans.”
For a point of reference, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Louisiana is just under one-third black. “This deserves more attention,” Edwards went on to say.
Indeed, this issue has received very little attention at all. Not only has mainstream reporting on it been sparse, but very few states are even collecting data of the nature of the figures mentioned thus far. All of New York and California — which combine for around 60 million people — are not keeping track of these numbers!
And without these sorts of numbers, public health institutions will be without information necessary to allocate sufficient medical resources to communities of colour during this time of crisis. As a result, countless vulnerable lives are being put at risk. This is, in fact, a matter of life or death.
Some in the federal government are working to address this concern, though. On March 27th, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Democratic Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) and Robin Kelly (IL-02) penned a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar in which they urged his department to immediately begin releasing “demographic data on the race and ethnicity of patients… with COVID-19”. This request has not been met, and so Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and several of his colleagues are currently working on a follow-up letter — this time, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC, in some sense, preempted the coming letter, as the spokesperson of their National Center of Health Statistics, Jeff Lancashire, has come out and said that the institute will release demographic data, “but not for a while.” I am afraid that this is time we simply do not have. We cannot afford to waffle on this. The federal government must act swiftly and decisively now to make sure that these numbers are collected, and that the information is disseminated to the relevant public health authorities in an efficient manner. American lives depend on it.