The color of Covid: racial inequities in the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic 

Source: STAT News

“When white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia.” (My grandfather, George Robinson, Sr.)

By Camille Landry (Program Coordinator)

What color is Covid? Many people would say red and blue, citing the familiar graphic of a fuzzy red globe with blue spikes. Others might say that Covid has no color. But the Covid pandemic is anything but color-blind. In the United States, the color of your skin is a predictor of whether you will become infected with COVID-19, how sick you might get, or whether you’ll die. 

More than 982,000 people have died in the U.S. from Covid – and this is likely an undercount. This is the equivalent of losing more people than all those who live in Washington, D.C., Boston or San Francisco, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Millions more have become ill, with many requiring lengthy hospital stays. SARS-Covid 19 has disrupted every aspect of life for people around the world. 

The pandemic cast a spotlight on systemic racism in the U.S. It’s revealed deep-seated inequities in healthcare, employment, education and economics for communities of color and amplifies social and economic factors that contribute to poor health outcomes. Black, Brown and Indigenous people of all ages, genders, education and income levels and locations are disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Black, Indigenous and Pacific Islander Americans have experienced the highest death tolls from COVID-19 in the United States, at a rate of douple or more that of white and Asian Americans. One in 500 Black Americans has died of Coronavirus infection. Case data from the CDC show that Black Americans, who comprise 13% of the total U.S. population, make up 30% of COVID-19 cases. 

Most of the disproportionate rates of infection and death among BIPOC people stem from the systemic racism that plays a significant role in every aspect of this country. Discrepancies in wealth, education, employment, incarceration, access to healthcare, plus the burden of dealing with racism in large and small ways, exact a deadly toll on people.

Black, Brown and Indigenous people contract Covid more often than their white counterparts, and they’re more likely to die from it. Race and ethnicity are risk markers for underlying conditions that affect health, including socioeconomic status, access to healthcare and exposure to the virus related to occupation (e.g. frontline, essential, and critical infrastructure workers).

Source: Alliance for Strong Families and Communities

According to the Office of Behavioral Health Equity, Black, Brown and Indigenous people:

  • Have higher rates of underlying health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and obesity compared to whites.
  • Are more likely to be uninsured and to lack a usual source of care, which is an impediment to accessing COVID-19 testing and treatment services.
  • Are more likely to work in the service industries such as restaurants, retail, and hospitality that are particularly at risk for loss of income during the pandemic.
  • Are more likely to live in housing situations such as multigenerational families or low-income and public housing that make it difficult to social distance or self-isolate.
  • Often work in jobs that are not amenable to teleworking.
  • Are more frequent users of public transportation, which puts them at risk for exposure to COVID-19.

Age is a major factor in who lives and who dies. Among whites, death rates are higher for older people. Because Blacks and Latine people are younger on average than whites, one might predict that they would be less likely to die from a disease that has been brutal to the elderly. But that’s not what is happening. 

Instead, the CDC, adjusting for population age differences, estimates that in this country, Indigenous, Brown and Black people are two to three times more likely than white people to die of COVID-19. (The death rate unadjusted for age is 1.4 x that of whites.) Latine people are dying at much younger ages than other groups.

37% of Latine deaths were of those under 65, versus 12% for white Americans and 30% for Black people. Latine people between 30 and 39 have died at five times the rate of white people in the same age group. (See below.)

The CDC reported a total of over 920,000 deaths from Covid as of February 15. Among cases and deaths with known race/ethnicity:

  • Hispanic people represent a larger share of cases relative to their share of the total population (24% vs. 18%), while their share of deaths is more proportionate to their share of the population (17% vs. 18%). The disparity in cases relative to their share of the population has decreased slightly over time. (As of early October 2021, they accounted for 27% of cases.)
  • Black people make up a similar share of cases relative to their share of the population (13%), but account for a slightly higher share of deaths compared to their population share (14% vs. 13%). This pattern has been consistent since October 2021.
  • American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander people make up similar shares of cases and deaths relative to their shares of the population, which is consistent with data as of October 2021.
  • Consistent with data as of early October 2021, Asian people make up a lower share of cases and deaths compared to their population share (four percent and three percent, respectively, vs. six percent).
  • White people account for a lower share of cases compared to their share of the population (54% vs. 60%) but a larger share of deaths compared to their population share (63% vs. 60%). The higher share of deaths relative to their share of the population reflects a shift from October 2021, when their share of deaths was slightly lower than their share of the population. This shift largely reflects a higher death rate compared to other groups during the fourth quarter of 2022, amid the Omicron surge.

Race, class and gender play a large role in infection rates because race plays a role in what job you do, your access to healthcare, and even your ability to take time from work to get vaccinated or recover from vaccine side effects. BIPOC people are less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance and thus less likely to have a primary physician, less likely to have sick or personal leave on their jobs and more likely to work in jobs that place them in proximity to other people, with little or no control over how they interact with others. They are less likely to be in executive or supervisory positions, or to hold jobs with flexible hours. They are less likely to be able to work from home. They are less likely to have enough personal or familial wealth that can carry them over if they lose their jobs or must stay home to care for their families. They have fewer options for avoiding Covid infection than white people have.

BIPOC families were more likely to send their children to school rather than opt for a learn-at-home situation during the pandemic. Working class children must attend daycare and school because their parents have little choice other than to show up to work or face dire economic consequences. This leads to the spread of infection. Children and teens infected with Covid often do not show symptoms even when they are contagious. This increases the likelihood of them infecting others, since no one realizes the children are spreading the disease.

Impacts on education

Brown, Black and Indigenous children – who were already experiencing an education gap compared to their white peers – have lost more educational ground during the pandemic compared to white children, as a result of class cancellation and the shift to distance learning formats. They have fewer family resources and less internet access, fewer devices for accessing online learning resources and are more likely to be at home alone or with an adult who cannot offer learning assistance. 

The pandemic is widening the already huge racial gap in educational success. I checked on friends whose children attend schools in metropolitan Oklahoma City, where I live. My next-door neighbor, Ruth, who is retired, cared for three of her grandchildren when schools closed. “We waited weeks for workbooks for these kids. Without them, they couldn’t do assignments. Lots of days, they were supposed to be in class on the computer but the computer wouldn’t load the classes, so the kids missed out.” 

The city’s chronically underfunded school district was pushed to its limits. Two of her grandchildren had substitute teachers all year due to a chronic teacher shortage in the state. When the shift to online learning came, those inexperienced teachers struggled with the change. “The District announced during spring break 2020 that they would not reopen. Nobody was ready for that,” Ruth said. “I help the children as much as I can. I go over their work with them. I worked as a bookkeeper and I feel like I’m good at math but the kids tell me ‘that’s not the way we do it.’” She feels like the entire year-and-a-half that they were learning from home has been mostly wasted from an academic perspective. 

Ruth also worries about the additional grocery bills. “The children were getting breakfast and lunch at school every day. I can drive down the street and pick up the food the school hands out but it’s not as much food as they’d get in the school cafeteria. The kids ask for more. They’re eating me out of house and home!” She laughed, but said that she had to put off getting tires for her car and paying bills because of the added expense. “Their uncle taught the boys how to change a tire and put oil in the car. That’s a good thing. I’m teaching them how to cook. We read together when we can. It doesn’t seem like enough. I really worry that they are not going to be ready for the next grade.”

More than 60 years after school desegregation became the law, education in the U.S. is highly segregated by race and income. Schools are still segregated and Brown and Black children are paying a price. Students in well-funded districts have resources and opportunities that their inner-city peers do not have. The zip code you live in largely determines your quality of education and future success.  

In a nearby suburb my friend Carissa, who is white, juggled working from home with the responsibility of overseeing the education of her children ages nine and 12. Her suburban district provided iPads to its students; they haven’t had many problems getting the online classes to work. Her children attended two of the highest-performing schools in the area. “They did a good job, as good as anyone could have expected,” she said. Carissa holds a master’s degree. “That education and experience have made it easier for me to step into this role. I was able to help them when they needed it.” Her children have now returned to school full-time. The eldest attends a private tutoring center to help him with math, which he struggled to learn through online classes. “I’m glad we had the resources to see us through the last two years,” Clarissa explained. “My friends who aren’t as fortunate have seen their kids fall behind.”

Experts agree. The U.S. Department of Education found widening disparities between Black and Brown children and their white peers as a result of the pandemic’s changes in schooling. Children for whom English is a second language and children with special needs have lost the most ground. Academics aren’t the only thing that has suffered. The Department’s report on the educational impact of Covid states:

“Nearly all students have experienced some challenges to their mental health and well-being during the pandemic and many have lost access to school-based services and supports, with early research showing disparities based on race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identity, and other factors. Heightened risks of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence during the pandemic, including from household members as well as intimate partners, and online harassment from peers and others, affect many students and may be having a continued disparate impact on K-12 and postsecondary girls and women and students who are transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.”

The Department of Education also identified increased harassment and bullying of Asian and Pacific Islander students that mirrors the increased racism faced by these communities since the start of the pandemic. 

“The pandemic has widened the gaps that have always existed. It has been an educational disaster for the children and youth we teach,” according to the principal of an Oklahoma City high school. “My hope is that this won’t close doors to them that were only ever half open.” 

Jobs matter

Jobs matter. The woman checking out your groceries who comes face-to-face with hundreds of people each day, many of whom refuse to wear masks, is at higher risk of becoming ill than someone who works in an office. The bus driver, teacher, receptionist, food service worker, daycare provider, factory worker, and people who are incarcerated or living in a shelter are at higher risk of infection. These people are more likely to be Brown, Black or Indigenous. Many are women. Few of these workers have the protections or support of a union. 

We see the effects of sexism, racism and other forms of marginalization in today’s labor market. Data show racial and gender wage and wealth gaps, persistent racial and gender unemployment disparities, hiring discrimination, barriers to employment for those who have been involved in the criminal justice system, and more. The pandemic did not directly cause these centuries-old issues, but it made them worse.

The Covid pandemic has amplified existing challenges in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. Layoffs and furloughs have resulted in many people being thrust into joblessness. They are facing eviction, loss of their homes, their cars and even the ability to feed their families.

Impacts on poverty and food insecurity

Black, Brown and Indigenous families experience crisis-level rates of poverty and food insecurity, especially when compared with their white counterparts. This is not by chance. These disparities are direct consequences of policies and decisions made by those in power. Dating back to colonial times and in every realm of their existence, Black, Brown and Indigenous families have been excluded from the systems and institutions that have provided financial security, upward mobility, and generational wealth to white families. 

Black and Latine communities have been particularly hard hit by the health and economic crises, experiencing more job losses, higher rates of infection and mortality, and greater likelihood of evictions and hunger than their white counterparts – and more – in just the past two years. According to the Economic Policy Institute, real median income declined 4.5% among Asian households (from $99,400 to $94,903), 2.6% among Hispanic households (from $56,814 to $55,321), 2.7% among non-Hispanic white households (from $77,007 to $74,912), and was statistically unchanged for Black households (from $46,648 to $46,600). 

The greatest effect on economic equity during the pandemic is a result of the disproportionate shares of women – Black and Latina women in particular – who lost full-time, year-round work. This was largely due to job loss by workers in face-to-face service jobs like retail and leisure/hospitality. Restaurants and stores closed; food service workers whose income depends on tips were hard hit by those closures and by people using take-out and delivery services rather than dining in.


Race is also a factor in vaccination rates. Even as the nation rushes to vaccinate people and end the pandemic, Black and Indigenous people are not doing well. As of March 7, 2022, 84% of Asian, 64% of Latine and 62% of white people had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, higher than the rate for Black people (57%).

There are many reasons why BIPOC people in the U.S. refuse or delay vaccinations. Some distrust public health initiatives. African Americans remember the Tuskegee Study, where Black men were told they were receiving treatment for syphilis but received only placebos; many died from the disease and a lot of them infected their partners. People recall how Brown and Indigenous women were secretly sterilized when they went into hospitals to give birth. They recall the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who received inadequate treatment for her cancer but whose body tissue was used without her permission to establish what was the first, and, for many years the only human cell line able to reproduce indefinitely. Neither she nor her family received any compensation for this. We’ve heard stories of cruel medical experiments carried out on our ancestors.

Many people distrust the medical establishment as a result of their own negative personal encounters when seeking healthcare. Treatment at teaching hospitals – often the only source for medical care – often involves having medical students, residents, and other minimally-trained practitioners providing care; sometimes that care is less than stellar. Many BIPOC people have experienced racism, subtle and blatant, at the hands of medical providers. Medical apartheid is real in America. Others distrust the government and its role in creating the vaccine. Regardless of the reason for vaccine hesitancy, the fewer people who receive the vaccine, the higher the rate of infection will remain.

Impacts on mental health

Mental health, always a challenging issue in the Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, is similarly under attack by COVID-19. The journal Psychiatric Times reports that the economic downturn and staggering job losses due to the pandemic have resulted in lost health insurance, financial instability, food insecurity and loss of housing among those lacking the safety net of savings and family resources. The median net worth of white families is nearly 10 times higher than Black families, eight times higher than Brown families and significantly higher than Indigenous families. These stresses and losses increase the risks of depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicide, as well as poor physical health.

Black and Brown individuals with pre-existing mental illness are among the most vulnerable. They are more likely to live in poverty, often in group settings (which greatly increase the risk of infection). Mentally ill people are more likely to be incarcerated. They suffer the stigma and marginalization of mental illness plus bias and discrimination due to their race and economic status. The risk of death from COVID-19 is 50% higher for those with a history of mental illness compared to those without that history.

The stress of coping with lost jobs, lost income, children who must be cared for during the school day while parents work jobs with no flexibility, and the other burdens wreaked on them by systemic racism have an impact on mental health. The well-publicized incidents of police brutality and murder of BIPOC people are a further source of stress.

A recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General reveals that African American, Brown and Indigenous people have less access to mental health services than do whites, are less likely to receive needed care and are more likely to receive poor quality care when they do seek help. 

The pandemic has been particularly hard on young people. “The pandemic’s negative impacts most heavily affected those who were vulnerable to begin with, such as youth with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ youth, low-income youth, youth in rural areas, youth in immigrant households, youth involved with the child welfare or juvenile justice systems and homeless youth,” according to an advisory by the U.S. Surgeon General on the mental health of youth. 

The deadly effects of conservative politics

No discussion of the racialized effects of the Covid pandemic would be complete without mentioning the damage done to Republican voters by the politicization and rampant anti-science, anti-fact falsehoods that circulate in social media and right-wing news sources. The areas of the country with the lowest vaccination rates are those that have Republicans – especially far-right Republicans – as their local and national representatives. Self-identification as a political conservative who voted for Trump is the strongest indicator of not being vaccinated.

The increase in Covid deaths among people who are younger, southern, rural and white represents a shift from the demographics of the first wave of this pandemic. The first wave of people to suffer and die from Covid were disproportionately Black, Brown, Indigenous and/or older adults, and people with underlying conditions that made them more vulnerable to the virus. Now, severe Covid infections requiring hospitalization or leading to death are most common among the unvaccinated. These deaths are largely preventable.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a stark divide in vaccination hesitancy by political affiliation. More than a third of Republicans and white conservatives refuse to get a vaccination. Even more refuse to wear masks and abide by social distancing and other safety recommendations. We’ve seen their protests at school board and city council meetings. We watched as rowdy truckers drunk on white privilege protested Covid protocols by shutting down the capital of Canada and disrupting traffic throughout the U.S. 


Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has lifted the covers off racism and inequality in this society, it has also shown us what many people have been saying for years: things need not be this way. Covid has forced institutions and policies to change in ways that better accommodate all people, and that can at least start to right the wrongs caused by racism and white supremacy. We now see that education can take place outside of a classroom and that we can tailor education to the needs of individual students. We see that it is possible for the government and private industry to provide life-saving medical care to all who need it. We know that people can work from home instead of commuting to an office. We know that governmental support in the form of programs and direct financial assistance can make a hugely positive difference in people’s lives. 

The pain, suffering and deaths caused by SARS-Covid 19 in the United States shows the damage that racism and inequality wreak upon this nation. Black, Brown and Indigenous people have been disproportionately harmed, and this unequal burden is rooted in systemic racism. This represents a violation of human rights that affects millions of people in this nation, one that robs the world of the human potential and creates generational pain and suffering for people whose only “crime” is to have been born non-white. 

It is an ironic and deadly twist of fate that this new increase in Covid infections and deaths among white conservatives, who are precisely the group most likely to deny that systemic racism exists or to support the elimination of racism, is an unintended effect of centuries of white supremacy and systemic racism that have turned upon people who would perpetuate racial inequality. It is a wasteful and tragic consequence of the deep divide in this nation. 


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This article is part of a series to be included in AFGJ’s Human Rights in the United States: 2023 Report