A Louisiana pastor prays as his parishioners die, first from cancer and now from COVID-19. An Indigenous community in New Mexico lacks adequate health care as the death toll mounts. A sick hospital worker in New Jersey frets about infecting others in her heavily populated neighborhood.
As the country cries out for a vaccine and a return to normal, lost in the policy debates is the reality that COVID-19 kills far more people of color than white Americans. This isn’t a matter of coincidence, poor choices or bad luck – it’s by design.
A team of USA TODAY reporters explored how the policies of the past and present have made Black, Asian, Hispanic and Indigenous Americans prime targets for COVID-19. They found:
Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning.
America’s education and economic systems are still unequal, disproportionately leaving people of color out of higher-wage jobs. When COVID-19 struck, more people of color were serving as essential workers directly in the path of the virus.
Decades of discrimination in housing corralled people of color into tightly packed neighborhoods, fueling the virus’ spread. Those neighborhoods tend to lie in “food deserts,” leading to diabetes, obesity and heart disease that make people more likely to die from the virus.
Environmental policies designed by white power brokers at the expense of the poor has poisoned the air they breathe, fueling cancers and leaving communities weakened in the path of the virus. A lack of federal funding left the most vulnerable communities cut off from healthcare at the most critical moment.
Put simply, America’s history of racism was itself a preexisting condition.
Of the 10 U.S. counties with the highest death rates from COVID-19, seven have populations where people of color make up the majority, according to data compiled by USA TODAY. Of the top 50 counties with the highest death rates, 31 are populated mostly by people of color.
“COVID-19 has brought out into the open, with painful clarity, these divisions in our society that have been there for a long time but, for one reason or another, people were able to overlook them,” said Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College.
With nearly 1,000 people a day dying from the virus and scientists scrambling to grasp exactly how the virus spreads and kills, federal and state data has not provided enough demographic detail to show the full impact on communities of color. The race and ethnicity of people who contract the virus is known in 52% of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But study after study has shown clear patterns in whom the virus kills.
Black people are more than