Contributed by Christian Salazar, PhD, UCI MIND Project Scientist
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on families all across our country, with 70,000 reported deaths to date. Early in the pandemic the data had suggested that African Americans were being admitted to the hospital and dying in disproportionate numbers. In fact, an analysis by the Washington Post revealed that coronavirus death rates were about six times higher in black majority counties than in white majority counties. More recent data also showed that Latinos and Indigenous groups like the Navajo people were dying in excess numbers. What could explain such disparity? The causes are complex, but I will highlight three important themes that could give us some insight.
First, it’s critical to consider the influence of “social determinants” of health, which are conditions that people are born in and live through. They can include things like poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to health care, exposure to violence, and barriers associated with immigration, language and literacy. Also influential is the physical environment, such as housing conditions, exposure to toxins, and other environments that make it difficult to live a healthy lifestyle. The link between poor social conditions/built environment and disease are well known and only made worse by a national emergency like a pandemic.
Due in part to adverse social and economic conditions, members of minority groups are more likely to have pre-existing medical conditions, like heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma. People living with these conditions are at greater risk of death from COVID-19.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that minorities are disproportionately exposed to this novel coronavirus. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, minorities are overrepresented in lower-paying jobs deemed essential for society – for example, health care workers, food industry workers, correctional officers, housekeeping, and janitorial workers. For these occupations, it is difficult—if not impossible—to maintain social distance. Further adding to their risks, public transportation is the most likely way for many minorities to commute to work.
Unfortunately, the true scale of this racial/ethnic disparity is unknown because most states are not reporting mortality by race/ethnicity. So, as we celebrate Cinco de Mayo responsibly, let’s take a moment to remember our loved ones— family, friends and neighbors— who have lost their lives to COVID-19. Let’s be thankful that we still have our lives to live and that we will need to continue to maintain our social distance to keep it that way.
About Christian Salazar, PhD:
Dr. Salazar’s research aims to understand the mechanisms that create health disparities across the lifespan in vulnerable populations, such as those who are socially disadvantaged and ethnoracial minorities who remain underrepresented in clinical research. His previous work has examined the potential link between oral infections and systemic diseases in ethnic minorities. As a recent addition to UCI MIND, Dr. Salazar’s role as project scientist involves fostering community-based partnerships with Asian and Hispanic/Latino organizations to improve participation of minority groups in Alzheimer’s disease research.