COVID-19 Disproportionately Affects Blacks and Indigenous Americans

by Sophia Garbarino, August 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected every American in some way. We’ve had to quarantine, socially distance, and make the difficult decision to avoid seeing those we care about, all to stop the spread of the virus. We’ve seen restaurants close, schools go completely online, and unemployment skyrocket. Most importantly, we’ve seen sickness and death at an insurmountable rate. Both the sick and healthy have died, and as of August 20th this year, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States is 172,416 (CDC).

Beyond the six-figure number, we’ve also witnessed weeks of unrest across the country, with people rallying in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On May 25, 2020, the death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, MN, triggered waves of protest both in the streets and online. While being arrested for paying with a counterfeit bill, Mr. Floyd “was killed by police” after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept “his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck… for a total of nine minutes and 30 seconds” (Willis et al.). Police brutality has long plagued our country, and it is only now being recognized, thanks to body camera technology.

While these deaths may appear mutually exclusive at first, we cannot ignore the alarming extent to which systemic racism affects our people. Not only are Black folx subject to over-policing and constant fear, but they are also more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus. According to a recent COVID-19 study by the APM (American Public Media) Research Lab, “the heaviest losses [are] among Black and Indigenous Americans” (APM Research Lab Staff). In the last five months, Blacks and Indigenous Americans have seen the highest death rates (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Cumulative actual COVID-19 mortality rates per 100,000, by race and ethnicity, April 13-Aug. 18, 2020 from APM Research Lab,  http://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.

The study found that “Black Americans continue to experience the highest actual COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide—more than twice as high as the rate for Whites and Asians, who have the lowest actual rates” (APM). Though COVID-19 arrived in the United States from China, Asian-Americans ironically have the second-lowest rate of contracting the virus. Yet as another reflection of racism, President Donald Trump previously referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus” and defended himself on multiple occasions (Chiu). Furthermore, Washington Post photojournalist Jabin Botsford posted proof of the president’s stance on Twitter, as shown below:

While the American president fuels racist agendas, Blacks and Indigenous Americans are being, perhaps avoidably, killed by the novel coronavirus. Individually, “Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islander and Latino Americans all have a COVID-19 death rate of triple or more White Americans (age-adjusted)” (APM). It’s important to note that while adjusting for age “remove[s] the role of age differences,” it also “increases the COVID-19 mortality rate for all racial and ethnic groups except for Whites” (APM). However, even without age adjustments, the death rates are still higher than those of Whites (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Actual versus Age-adjusted mortality rates by race/ethnicity through Aug. 18, 2020 (Blacks are on the far left in green, and Whites are on the far right in dark blue) from APM Research Lab, http://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.

The biggest question to answer is, why? Why are so many more Blacks dying from COVID-19 than other ethnicities? The answer is not as complex as you may think, and it has almost nothing to do with genetics.

According to Our World in Data, risk factors for contracting the coronavirus include:

  • Age,
  • Smoking and other lung compromises,
  • Obesity, and
  • Access to handwashing facilities and healthy hygiene practices (Roser et al.).

Black communities are more at risk for high COVID-19 rates thanks to systemic racism. Its influence on our policies and structures is deeply rooted in American history, dating back to colonization, slavery, and the White Man’s Burden. These practices and beliefs are still affecting us today, much more than most of us may realize.

Dr. Leonard Egede and Dr. Rebekah Walker of the Medical College of Wisconsin Center for Advancing Population Science (CAPS) recently published an article about the way systemic racism affects COVID-19 death rates in the New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Structural Racism, Social Risk Factors, and Covid-19 — A Dangerous Convergence for Black Americans.” Here, they provide a detailed explanation of how racial structures in the United States

“affect health through a variety of pathways, including social deprivation from reduced access to employment, housing, and education; increased environmental exposures and targeted marketing of unhealthy substances; inadequate access to health care; physical injury and psychological trauma resulting from state-sanctioned violence such as police brutality and chronic exposure to discrimination; and diminished participation in healthy behaviors or increased participation in unhealthy behaviors as coping mechanisms.”

Egede and Walker

After generations of being oppressed by the systems that are supposed to protect their rights and liberties, Black Americans are still facing racism and the powerful White agenda to keep them controlled and confined to lower economic classes (keep in mind that many Whites do not support this agenda; it derives from centuries of international racial divides, especially between Whites and Blacks). The coronavirus was just an unpredicted catalyst for exposing this agenda to the mass media and general population. Blacks continue to face death and discrimination from every side, from job opportunities to police brutality to medical care, and it now seems only more inescapable.

We must also be aware of the effects of COVID-19 on the Indigenous American population. We all know that frequently washing your hands with soap and water helps prevent contracting the coronavirus, but many indigenous populations do not have running water. This is nothing new, either; about 90% of the Navajo Nation (located at the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) lives without running water. They also have “one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates per capita in the U.S.” (Baek). This is no coincidence, and we must be aware of these issues in order to make progress towards a solution.

The Navajo Water Project, a non-profit organization focused on providing clean, running water to Navajo folx, reports that 1 in 3 Navajo families have to haul water home every day (Navajo Water Project). As the Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez stated earlier this year,

“We are United States citizens but we’re not treated like that… we once again have been forgotten by our own government.”

Navajo Water Project

The astonishingly low access to basic hygiene resources like running water can be sourced back to the colonization period, when Indigenous Americans were massacred and terrorized by the White colonizers. Only a few tribes were able to secure their rightful territory. When the government signed the Navajo Nation Treaty of 1868, the tribe was finally able to return home after being “forcefully and permanently removed from their ancestral territory” (Ault).

Even though they live on their own land, the Navajo nation is still unable to access the same basic resources as all other U.S. citizens. The majority live below the poverty line, have no running water, toilets, or sinks, and lack adequate funds for education. This is why there are such high rates of coronavirus in these reservations; even before the pandemic hit, they had no defenses. After age-adjustment, “Indigenous people are 3.4 times more likely to have died than Whites,” and in Mississippi, over 1000 indigenous people have died from coronavirus compared to the 44 Whites as of August 18, 2020 (APM). This astounding disparity is undoubtedly race-related.

“The racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality—due to these compounding, elevated risks from our systems of housing, labor force, health care, and policy responses—are what is termed systemic racism

APM Research Lab

Our nation is not only experiencing a public health crisis, but also a crisis in justice. Our Constitution states that all men (and women) are created equal, but we are not, at least in the eyes of our racially-influenced institution. Our own citizens are being mistreated, discriminated against, abused, and ultimately killed. COVID-19 isn’t just a health concern—it’s a race concern. An ethnic concern. A justice concern. It’s your concern.

So what can you do to help? First and foremost, you can help spread awareness. Post on your social media accounts, talk about these issues with your friends and family, and of course, practice preventative measures against COVID-19, like frequently washing your hands with soap and water and social distancing. Listed below are resources to help you learn more about what was discussed in this article.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The Navajo Water Project


Works Cited

APM Research Lab Staff. “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.” APM Research Lab, 18 Aug. 2020, www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.

Baek, Grace. “Navajo Nation residents face coronavirus without running water.” CBS News, 8 May 2020, www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-navajo-nation-running-water-cbsn-originals/.

“Cases in the U.S.” CDC, 20 Aug. 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html.

Chiu, Allyson. “Trump has no qualms about calling coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus.’ That’s a dangerous attitude, experts say.” Washington Post, 20 Mar. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/20/coronavirus-trump-chinese-virus/.

Egede, Leonard, and Walker, Rebekah. “Structural Racism, Social Risk Factors, and Covid-19 — A Dangerous Convergence for Black Americans.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 383, 2020, www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2023616.

@jabinbotsford. “Close up of President @realDonaldTrump notes is seen where he crossed out “Corona” and replaced it with “Chinese” Virus as he speaks with his coronavirus task force today at the White House. #trump #trumpnotes.” Twitter, 19 Mar. 2020, 2:06 p.m., twitter.com/jabinbotsford/status/1240701140141879298.

The Navajo Water Project. The DigDeep Right to Water Project, 2014, www.navajowaterproject.org.

Ritchie, Hannah, et al. “Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19). Our World in Data, 21 Aug. 2020, ourworldindata.org/coronavirus#risk-factors-for-the-coronavirus-disease.Willis, Haley, et al. “New Footage Shows Delayed Medical Response to George Floyd.” New York Times, 11 Aug. 2020, /www.nytimes.com/2020/08/11/us/george-floyd-body-cam-full-video.html?searchResultPosition=1


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