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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Covid-19 Pandemic Magnifies Health Disparities

A bar graph, with adjusted for age information, shows Black Americans and Latinos, followed by indigenous people, Pacific Islanders and Asians, have been harder hit by the pandemic than Whites.

Black Americans and Latinos have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Dr. Lisa Cooper’s lifelong journey to reduce health and social disparities hit unexpected turbulence when Covid-19 struck.

Disparity populations have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Black Americans and other historically disadvantaged populations are experiencing disproportionately high infection, hospitalization and death rates.

In Maryland, for example, Black Americans comprise 30 percent of the population, yet represent 36 percent of Covid cases and 40 percent of Covid deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins Medicine. African Americans, Latinos and indigenous people are 3 times more likely to have died of Covid-19 than White Americans.

For vulnerable populations, Covid created the perfect storm, said Cooper. Ethnic minorities are more likely to work in essential jobs, making them even more susceptible to illness, yet they often lack paid sick leave, health insurance or access to health care services. Many lower-income people also lack access to such necessities as food, water and adequate housing. Exacerbating disparities, many African Americans—skeptical from past discriminatory experiences—remain reluctant to seek care.  

“We don’t have systematic, comprehensive investments in addressing social determinants of health,” said Cooper. “We want to flatten that curve long term.” To do so, “We need to focus on protecting the most vulnerable, not only because it’s the right thing to do ethically…but it also decreases the spread of infection.”

Cooper’s team has launched ancillary studies to examine inequities during Covid and developed interventions and recommendations to help the most vulnerable. 

Tracking data by race, ethnicity and geography, she said, helps local and national leaders assess infection risk and how best to allocate resources. Vulnerable groups need social services. Essential and low-wage workers need protective personal equipment, Covid testing, safe working conditions and sick leave. The disadvantaged need enhanced access to health care and testing. 

“Resistance to the spread of poor health in our society will only occur,” said Cooper, “when we have a sufficiently high proportion of people across all groups who are protected from, and immune to, negative social factors.”

Cooper underscored the need to engage more effectively with communities of color by listening to their concerns and working with community partners to dispel myths, promote conversation and build trust.—Dana Talesnik

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