Racism, Bias, and COVID-19

Isolation is probably the most prominent side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s another, more insidious outcome: a surge in anti-Asian bigotry coupled with the consequences of years of structural racism in our health care systems, which have already led to disparities in infection and fatality rates among Black and Latinx people as compared with white people.

Just as hate crimes against Muslims skyrocketed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Asian Americans from San Francisco to New York City and points in between are being accosted, assaulted, and discriminated against by people who blame them—wrongly, of course—for carrying the coronavirus and spreading COVID-19.

The FBI has issued an advisory to law enforcement departments across the country to prepare for more “hate crime incidents against Asian Americans.” A database created by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action to track reports of anti-Asian hate crimes logged around 700 incidents in a matter of weeks. Although it was initially created specifically for incidents in California, reports poured in from around the country.

Simply put, viruses don’t discriminate—they infect whoever is in their path, and Chinese Americans are no more susceptible to COVID-19 than any other American. Nor are they to blame for the spread of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 stigma can exacerbate health problems and make bringing the virus under control even more difficult than it already is. As the World Health Organization (WHO) notes in its guide to preventing and addressing coronavirus stigma, scapegoating individuals and groups “might contribute to a situation where the virus is more, not less, likely to spread,” as it can cause people to hide their illness to avoid discrimination, prevent them from seeking health care in a timely manner, and discourage them from adopting healthy behaviors.

It hasn’t helped that prominent political leaders—including President Trump—are publicly using terms like “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan coronavirus” to describe the novel coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China. Locally, MA Congressman Seth Moulton was harshly criticized for cosponsoring a House resolution blaming China for the virus; he withdrew his support in response.

We all can play a role in fighting COVID-19 stigma. Choose your words carefully when posting on social media or talking with friends and family. Share facts and accurate information (mass.gov is also a great hub of local information and links to national resources). Challenge myths and stereotypes. Encourage solidarity and empathy by sharing stories that humanize the experiences of people affected by COVID-19. And remember to communicate support and encouragement for the health care workers, first responders, grocery store clerks, emergency child care providers, delivery people, and other frontline responders to this pandemic.

Racial and LGBTQIA+ health disparities and COVID-19

Other signs of bias in the pandemic can be found in the racial disparities in infection and death rates. In Cook County, Chicago, 58 percent of those who have died of COVID-19 are Black even though they only make up 23 percent of the population. In Michigan, where Black residents make up 13 percent of the population, they comprise 33 percent of all positive cases of COVID-19 and 41 percent of the deaths. Similar disparities can be found in North Carolina and Illinois.

On April 7, MA Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders announced that the state would begin publicizing the demographic characteristics of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and those who have died of the disease. She noted that the state will not have complete information because most of the samples tested in state labs throughout March only contained the name and contact information of the individual being tested.

In response to the widespread lack of demographic data on infection and death rates by race, U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley (MA) and Robin Kelly (IL) and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA), Corey Booker (NJ), and Kamala Harris (CA) have called on U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar to begin monitoring and addressing racial disparities in the country’s response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

“Although COVID-19 does not discriminate along racial or ethnic lines, existing racial disparities and inequities in health outcomes and health care access may mean that the nation’s response to preventing and mitigating its harms will not be felt equally in every community,” the lawmakers wrote. “Low-income people are more likely to have many of the chronic health conditions that experts have identified as risk factors for complications from COVID-19. For example, Black and Hispanic adults are more likely to suffer from obesity and diabetes than non-Hispanic white adults. Asthma is also more prevalent among Black and Hispanic adults and children. People of color and immigrants are also less likely to be insured, and many communities of color have shortages of quality health care providers, making it difficult to access appropriate and timely care. Furthermore, a history of discrimination and marginalization has left some people of color distrustful of the medical system, making them less likely to seek out timely care.”

Similar disparities in health among LGBTQIA+ people also put them at higher risk of infection and complications from COVID-19. On March 25, The Fenway Institute published a policy brief detailing the ways in which people living with HIV and LGBTQIA+ people may be affected by COVID-19. As policy brief author Sean Cahill, the Director of Health Policy Research, outlined in this oped for The Advocate, “the impact of stigma and minority stress on overall health” means that LGBTQIA+ people are “more likely to have some of the underlying health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease that could increase their vulnerability if they are exposed to the novel coronavirus.”

All people should be vigilant about adhering to social distancing guidelines, which means staying home and only going outside for essential services such as accessing health care or medications, and food shopping. But those who already experience disparities in health due to discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, or gender identity are even more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. Now more than ever, is the time to prioritize health.

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