CoronApartheid: Racial Disparities During the Pandemic

Joseph Mullen (United States)

September 2021

Testing line for coronavirus

In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on March 27, 2020, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley called for the department to release statistics on the rate of infection of the coronavirus amongst African Americans.


The point that the two Massachusetts politicians were making was that the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States was going to have a disproportionate impact on Americans of color, particularly Black Americans—a point that, in the year that has since unfolded, has proven true. In the letter to Secretary Azar, the lawmakers wrote: "Without demographic data, policymakers and researchers will have no way to identify and address ongoing disparities and health inequities that risk accelerating the impact of the novel coronavirus." In other words, without data about the racial discrepancies of the coronavirus, policymakers cannot have empathy for the suffering of the African American community during this pandemic.


Racial disparities in the American healthcare system absolutely exist. And without a sense of empathy for the different circumstances that Black Americans face due to COVID-19, lawmakers and healthcare workers will be unable to protect them adequately from this pandemic. The first step in caring equitably for marginalized Americans is to acknowledge the vast inequalities of our healthcare system. In order to end these injustices before we see greater suffering due to racial bias in this system, the rest of America needs to empathize with the inadequate coverage of the Black community and stand up for equal treatment under our healthcare system.


The coronavirus pandemic has and will continue to take disproportionate tolls on the Black community if we don't start exercising empathy by expanding healthcare coverage and understanding the distrust of the healthcare system amongst African Americans. To start off, the largest populations of African Americans in the U.S. are in southern states, which have refused to expand Medicare and the Affordable Care Act in many cases. Thus, as of 2018, the uninsured rate among African Americans was 9.7%, while it was just 5.4% among whites, according to The Century Foundation. Worse, though many white Americans trust their doctors, they fail to empathize with the reasons African Americans do not. This distrust dates back to the Tuskegee experiment, a syphilis study from 1932 to 1972 in which African American men were told that they were being treated for syphilis but were instead left untreated while scientists gathered data on the disease. The experiment instilled a legacy of distrust in the Black community regarding medical providers; in a survey conducted by Giselle Corbie-Smith, 45.5% of African Americans participants said they fear unnecessary risks from their physicians versus 34.8% of white participants. These disparities lead to lower health coverage for African Americans, who are more likely to distrust their healthcare quality even if they do have coverage. What results, in the words of journalist Charles M. Blow, is a “Racial Time Bomb” waiting to explode during the coronavirus pandemic.


Race does not only impact the coronavirus response in the United States. For example, my mother grew up under the Apartheid system in South Africa, and the effects of legal segregation upon healthcare in modern South Africa will make the impacts of coronavirus upon Black South Africans far more pernicious.


The public health sector in South Africa, staffed by only 30% of the doctors in the country, remains the sole provider of healthcare for more than 40 million people, mostly Black South Africans who are uninsured and constitute approximately 84% of the national population. The other 70% of doctors take care of 16% of the population, mostly white, who can afford private insurance. This massive racial disparity will have a horrifying effect. Following these racial gaps, South Africa has already experienced the biggest HIV epidemic in the world, with 7.7 million people living with HIV.


Coronavirus will exploit the racial disparities in both South Africa and the United States, disparities that often go hand-in-hand with economic and educational barriers. As a result, it is incumbent upon doctors to utilize their empathy for patients of different races, particularly Black patients, in COVID-19 treatments. Rather than furthering distrust, doctors can be especially transparent about treatments, the methods of spread, and the mortality rates of the coronavirus. Doctors must explain the symptoms of the coronavirus fully, and the New York Times has suggested that making doctors’ medical notes more accessible to their patients will help mitigate distrust. The healthcare industry must be prepared to offer equitable coverage for Black patients. Such equitable access and communication methods must also apply to COVID-19 vaccines.


Warren and Pressley took the first step in 2020, and as the pandemic drags on, we must continue to curtail racial biases in our healthcare system by having empathy for our fellow Americans.


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird


Works Cited:


Corbie-Smith, Giselle, et al. “Distrust, Race, and Research.” Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 162, no. 21, 2002, p. 2458., https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.162.21.2458.


Mayosi, Bongani M., and Solomon R. Benatar. “Health and Health Care in South Africa — 20 Years after Mandela.” 


New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 371, no. 14, 2014, pp. 1344–1353., https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmsr1405012.


Taylor, Jamila. “Racism, Inequality, and Health Care for African Americans.” The Century Foundation, 19 Dec. 2019, https://tcf.org/content/report/racism-inequality-health-care-african-americans.


Warren, Elizabeth, et al. “Racial Disparities in COVID Response.” Received by Secretary Alex M. Azar II, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 27 Mar. 2020, Washington, DC, https://www.booker.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2020.03.27%20Letter%20to%20HHS%20re%20racial%20disparities%20in%20COVID%20response.pdf.

Joseph Mullen is a student at Cornell studying Africana Studies and Government and a dual South African and American citizen.

#Op-Ed          #Social Justice

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