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COVID-19 disparities reflect persistent race and class segregation

Cornell University
7-Apr-2020 2:35 PM EDT, by Cornell University

Preliminary data in Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New York and North Carolina suggests there are large racial disparities in COVID-19 infections and deaths. 

Neil Lewis, Jr. is assistant professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University and assistant professor of communication research in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. He says racial and economic disparities reflect a persistent problem throughout U.S history and may exacerbate the pandemic we are currently facing. 


Lewis says: 

“These recent and emerging statistics about racial disparities in COVID-19 infections and death are depressing, but they are in no way surprising to me. To put it bluntly, they are simply the latest manifestation of a persistent problem we still live with in this nation. This is a country in which, due to historic and contemporary segregation and social stratification, race and social class have long been, and will likely continue to be, large predictors of health outcomes. 

“People’s social positions, which are associated with race and class, affect things like their ability to access health services, the quality of care they receive in those health services, and thus their overall health status, and the likelihood of being in a position to get proper care when new health issues, like a pandemic, emerge. 

“I am not particularly optimistic about these disparities getting better in the immediate future, that is unless radical action is taken. The patterns of stratification have economic implications that I suspect may exacerbate the health problem we are currently facing. Wealth, which varies by race, is a big predictor of people’s ability to work from home and engage in other social distancing practices. If some groups have to spend more time working in jobs that require them to have frequent exposure to others (who may be infected), those groups will bear a disproportionate burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Jamila Michener, an expert on poverty and racial inequality and assistant professor of government at Cornell, says that underlying health conditions, as well as less access to health insurance and vital resources, put black communities in a vulnerable position during the current pandemic. 


Michener says: 

“Black vulnerability to COVID-19 is not coincidental or happenstance or bad luck, it is the product of a long history of racism, discrimination, neglect, and indifference. That history remains alive and already struggling communities are being devastated as a result. 

“Compared to their white counterparts, black people are more likely to have chronic underlying health conditions, making them more physically vulnerable to the coronavirus. They are less likely to have health insurance, creating a barrier to receiving care when they fall ill. They are more likely to live in economically depressed communities, cutting them off from access to vital resources. They have a long history of (warranted) distrust in government, doctors, hospitals and other institutions – making it more difficult for life saving messages to get through and take effect. For all of these reasons and many more, black communities are acutely vulnerable during this time.”


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