The disproportionate impact appears to be attributable to preexisting conditions — high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and inadequate access to health care — that make African Americans more vulnerable to the disease. But the handful of examples above raises an urgent question: Does the effect hold true for African Americans throughout the country?
Unfortunately, there’s no way for the public to know. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not providing nationwide data about covid-19’s impact on African Americans, Latinos or other racial and ethnic groups. The CDC customarily reports such data, but it has not done so with covid-19. Many states and counties are also not publishing the information. As of Tuesday, the CDC had not responded to inquiries about whether it has the demographic data and isn’t releasing it, or simply isn’t tracking the information.
In this critical moment, the federal government must collect and disclose racial data on covid-19 testing, cases and deaths. States and local governments should do the same. This demographic data could help save lives. Understanding which populations are most vulnerable allows public health officials to partner with messengers who can speak credibly to specific communities, offering up-to-date information about social distancing, sheltering in place and other preventive measures.
The data also would allow public health officials to more effectively deploy testing to particular areas, track the virus on social networks, and identify and contain its spread. This containment helps not just communities most vulnerable to covid-19, but all Americans.
Such transparency also advances fairness in health care. Covid-19 demographic data can reveal the degree of access that the most susceptible populations have to coronavirus testing and medical services. Disclosure also allows federal agencies, Congress, states and local governments, as well as journalists, scholars and civil rights groups, to assess the quality of care received by African Americans, Latinos and other racial and ethnic groups. Health-care systems can use the information to guide treatment.
The possibility exists that data about race and covid-19 could be misused. Publicity about disproportionate death rates among African Americans could increase racial discrimination in an echo of recent attacks against Asian Americans amid reports on the coronavirus’s origins in China. Another potential drawback: With lifesaving equipment in short supply in some hospitals, health-care professionals could steer ventilators and respirators away from African American patients and toward those assumed to have better prospects of recovery. And policymakers, seeing the higher death rates in health systems serving black communities, might deem them ineffective and reduce their funding — when increasing it would be the obviously appropriate response.
These concerns are legitimate, but making the truth available is essential — especially now, when disinformation, political polarization and distrust abound.
The covid-19 pandemic has arrived at a time when distrust about racial bias in the allocation of limited medical resources is already high. Research has shown that in treatment of other maladies, including osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease and cancer, white physicians harbor implicit preferences for white patients over black ones. In this moment of deep uncertainty, covid-19 demographic data could act as effectively as a police dash-cam video in providing clear evidence of what is really transpiring during the pandemic.
That’s why several civil rights groups and other organizations, as well as members of Congress — including Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — are pushing the federal government to collect and publish demographic data about covid-19’s impact. Some states and local governments are already doing that job and could serve as models for a nationwide effort. Milwaukee County is especially notable for its online tracker, updated in real time with data about covid-19 deaths broken down by race, age and gender, with data-visualization mapping that shows outbreak hot spots.
Collecting and publishing such demographic data about the entire country are essential. This would allow communities affected the most to receive the support they need, slowing the virus’s spread and saving lives.