AS THE DATA from the COVID-19 pandemic begin to accumulate, a familiar and disturbing trend has emerged: the disproportionate toll on poorer Americans and communities of color. According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control, black Americans make up 13 percent of the country’s population but one-third of confirmed COVID cases; Latinos are 18 percent of the population but nearly one-fourth of cases. These groups are dying in larger numbers too: In cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, New Orleans, and New York, the mortality rates for black and Latino Americans are two, three, or even four times higher than they are for whites.
These inequities were the subject of an online discussion Tuesday afternoon, hosted by the Radcliffe Institute, between Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Murray professor at Radcliffe and professor of history, race, and public policy at the Kennedy School; and Mary T. Bassett, director of the Harvard FXB Center for Health and a professor in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The pair began with history. “There’s a reason that none of us are shocked that COVID-19 is taking a threefold higher toll in some cities on blacks than on whites,” said Bassett, who served as commissioner of New York City’s health department from 2014 to 2018. Heath disparities along racial lines date to the colonial period—“and not due to unusual diseases,” she added. “People often think the excess mortality among blacks is due to violence or H.I.V., but no. It’s the leading causes of death—cardiovascular disease and cancer—hitting people at younger ages and taking a higher toll.”