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University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

UNLV Public Health Expert Melva Thompson-Robinson on Why Coronavirus Disproportionately Affects Communities of Color

The updates have become as commonplace as checking the weather app on your phone each morning.

Every day, states around the country are reporting the latest numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths, updating their residents on whether they’ve reached the peak of infections, or if the curve is flattening.

But behind those numbers are people — people whose lives have been the most impacted by the world’s largest public health crisis.

And some communities are being hit worse than others.

Preliminary data has shown that communities of color — particularly African American, Native American, and Latinx populations — are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus disease.

We spoke with Melva Thompson-Robinson, UNLV tenured professor and director of the university’s Center for Health Disparities Research, to understand why this is happening, and what we can do about it.

Some of the data coming in shows that the coronavirus disease is impacting the African American community at higher rates than other populations. Why is this happening?

Right now, we’re still hypothesizing a little bit. The data is still coming in, and in many places, data has not been reported by race or ethnicity, so we don’t quite know the full picture. But anecdotally, we’re seeing in cities across the nation that the number of cases among people of color outweigh other segments of the population. We’re also seeing higher rates of exposure and deaths among the Native American and Latinx populations.

I think part of this comes down to the fact that there’s an underlying path of inequality and racism in America that has adversely affected communities of color. This path of inequality and racism has historically resulted in communities of color having poorer access to health care. Within these communities, there are also higher rates of unemployment, or underemployment, which has resulted in many people of color being considered essential workers — in grocery stores, restaurant and delivery businesses, and rideshare companies, for example. It’s also put them on the front lines in hospitals and schools, too.

African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans also have higher rates of the underlying conditions that put them at greater risk for becoming sick with the coronavirus. They’re more likely to be diabetic, and also to have higher rates of asthma, autoimmune disease and deficiencies, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. On top of this, many times a person doesn’t know they have these conditions. They’re not on medication or any type of a treatment plan, so when they come down with a disease like the coronavirus, it creates the perfect storm, and they’re more likely to become very sick.

Are there parts of the country where communities of color are being impacted more than others?

It’s hard to tell because at this point, not everybody is reporting data by race and ethnicity, and that’s been one of the calls that’s starting to come from public health officials and researchers. We need to be looking at this by race and ethnicity to see where the weakest link in our chain is. If we’re not addressing the weakest links, the health of our overall community is not going to improve.

It’s a very serious issue when you see in Louisiana, for example, that over 70 percent of the coronavirus cases are in the African American community, but that the African American community represents only 32 percent of the population. Some Native American tribal populations are worried that they could be wiped out because of this.

The most important thing is that people need to stay vigilant and continue to take social distancing seriously because coronavirus is not only impacting people in New York City where there’s high population density, and where people are living close together in high-rise buildings. It’s also heavily and adversely impacting communities like the Navajo Reservation, which is one of the largest reservations in terms of landmass and has low population density. It’s important for all of us as Americans to keep our social interactions to an absolute minimum.

Is this pandemic similar in any way to previous public health crises?

It does take me back to the HIV/AIDS epidemic a little bit. A colleague of mine who worked for the Centers for Disease Control spoke one day about what it would take for people in the African American community to take the HIV epidemic seriously. He said it would take 1 million African Americans dying from the disease. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. And I feel similarly about the coronavirus.

People are taking coronavirus seriously in part because of the economic impacts — it’s been heavily tied to that. But my concern is that people aren’t necessarily taking it seriously in specific subpopulations, such as the African American, Native American or Latinx communities. And because we don’t have all of the data we need, we’re not sure of the full damage, and how much of a burden the disease has had on these populations compared to other groups.

What can we learn from this pandemic?

I would say that I’m encouraged to see people talking about health disparities now.

I think a lot of people have been stunned by the numbers that have been released and they’re starting to say — wait a minute, how is this happening? What’s going on? I hope these conversations will continue, and will even continue a step further in looking at the disruption to families. What happens when a father dies — at 40 years of age — from coronavirus? What happens to that family?

I think it’s going to shed some light on the fact that this isn’t about personal choice. It’s about deep, underlying issues in our country around inequality that are based on race, gender, and socioeconomic status — issues that we needed to address before this, but that we have an even greater obligation to address now.

It’s also shed a light on what public health is, and why public health is so important, and why we need to fund public health at a much higher level than we currently fund it. As a public health researcher, I always say that the health of our community is only as strong as our weakest link. And so if our frontline workers, if our essential workers who are working in grocery stores, who are delivering our food, who are working in our hospitals and schools, are predominantly people of color, we need to ensure that they’re getting the resources they need to be healthy and maintain their health, so that we can come out of this crisis soon, and be stronger for the next one.

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