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Racial and ethnic disparities in the face of the coronavirus

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Given America’s racial history, concerns about a disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on minorities were brought to center stage as soon as the pandemic hit the US. While initially the racial and ethnic demographics of the people who were affected were not released or even collected, as soon as data from states, counties, and health authorities became available it became clear that African Americans were more likely to die from the virus than the population generally. 

In the UK, the racial issue jumped to public attention early on, as the first 11 doctors who died from Covid-19 were all reported to belong to black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. The largest epidemiological study thus far on the racial impact of Covid-19, based on medical records collected by NHS England for more than 17 million individuals, confirms that pre-existing medical conditions are associated with a higher risk of death, but also that they cannot explain it in full, suggesting a major role for socioeconomic factors. 

The urgency of the racial issue has been widely acknowledged within the medical literature that focuses on clinical outcomes, even though race-disaggregated data remain limited. While the higher risk of Covid-19 death among minorities tends to correlate with pre-existing health conditions, possibly because of genetic and biological factors, the consensus is that race differentials are also associated with socioeconomic disadvantages reflecting living and working conditions. Not only does a large share minorities live in poor areas characterized by high unemployment, low housing quality, and unhealthy living conditions, but they are also not as able to adhere to social distancing restrictions, whether because of within-community social norms or because of living in more densely populated areas. 

The rest of Europe has also suffered from a huge impact of the epidemic and is at the same time hosting large stocks of migrants on top of receiving large immigrant inflows. However, evidence on the impact of Covid-19 on minorities in continental Europe is only anecdotal, since most national surveillance agencies—even in those European countries that experienced the largest number of cases—do not provide disaggregated data that would allow assessing the extent of racial/ethnic differences.

In recent research, we analyze racial and ethnic disparities in Covid-19 fatalities using an extraordinarily detailed daily dataset that includes race among a wide array of other individual characteristics such as age, gender, pre-existing conditions, and home address. The data are collected by the Medical Examiner of Cook County, Illinois, which includes the City of Chicago. We track Covid-19 deaths from March 16, when the first death was recorded, to June 16, when the epidemiological curve was well past its peak.  

We first document that blacks in Cook County have died from Covid-19 at a rate higher than their population share and that they were hit earlier than other groups. We also show that redlining policies—a discriminatory practice that put services (financial and otherwise) out of reach of residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity—dating from the 1930s still exert an effect, with a sharper increase in mortality, driven by blacks and Latinos, in historically lower-graded neighborhoods. Thus, residential segregation induces a higher degree of vulnerability to the Covid-19 shock which, far from being determined by genetic and biological factors, is caused by socioeconomic status and household composition. It is through these two channels that the legacy of historical redlining manifests itself.

© Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico 

Graziella Bertocchi is Professor of Economics at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy, and President of the Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance, Rome, Italy, and Research Fellow, IZA.
Arcangelo Dimico is Senior Lecturer in Economics at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, and Research Fellow, IZA.

Find more IZA World of Labor coronavirus content on our curated topics pages: National responses to Covid-19 and Covid-19—Pandemics and the labor market.

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