To some, these are comforting details. The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen traveled to Georgia to document how that state’s decision to scale back efforts to contain the virus were perceived by locals.
“When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics — I’m not worried,” one Georgian told her.
It’s not clear which demographic was putting the man at ease. If it’s that he is white (the article’s context suggests he likely was), he shouldn’t be particularly blasé: Most of the deaths from the coronavirus have been among white Americans.
Incomplete data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through earlier this month indicate about 52 percent of those who have died of the virus and for whom data are available are non-Hispanic whites. (The government measures race and ethnicity separately, so “Hispanic” is considered independently from “white.”) The important context for that figure is that the country is about 60 percent non-Hispanic, meaning whites are relatively underrepresented in coronavirus fatalities.
A disproportionate number of the deaths in each group occurred in New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. The CDC data suggest about half of Georgia’s deaths occurred among white residents, a bit higher than the more up-to-date figures released by the state itself.
Black Georgians are overrepresented as black Americans are nationally, but the idea that a white person in Georgia is somehow not at particular risk is clearly inaccurate.
The man with whom McCrummen spoke may have been taking comfort in being relatively young. (His age isn’t identified.) After all, his friend followed up on his comment about demographics by referring to age.
“I know what people are going to say — ‘Those selfish idiots are killing our old people!’ ” he said.
It is true that older Americans have been more likely to die of covid-19. Nearly all of those deaths for which data are available through the CDC occurred among people who are at least 65 years old.
This fact, that the disease is so much deadlier for older Americans, has repeatedly been cited as a reason to scale back social distancing efforts. After all, if most people survive the disease — if, as another man told McCrummen, he had “a 90 percent chance of getting cured” — why not let people take their chances? There are immediately obvious answers to that line of argument, including that the illness itself has costs and that deaths from the virus at any age are hard to dismiss as acceptable. (Research has shown those who die of the virus are dying on average a decade before they otherwise would have.)
What’s telling about the CDC data on race and age is where the two overlap. Comparing the number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus with the number of deaths tracked by the CDC for the period in which the virus emerged shows both how black and Hispanic Americans are dying at more alarming rates than are whites and that their deaths are disproportionately younger, relatively speaking.
Among whites nationally, the coronavirus has the largest relative toll among the oldest population. Among Hispanics, though, it’s those ages 65 to 74 for whom the coronavirus has made up the largest percentage of recorded deaths.
In Georgia, the coronavirus is responsible for a larger percentage of all deaths among black residents than whites. In New York City, by contrast, the distribution of coronavirus-related deaths as a function of all deaths is a bit more even. The scale of that graph is a bit misleading, though. More than half of the deaths recorded among Hispanics ages 65 to 74 in New York City were attributable to the virus, compared with 38 percent of whites in that same age group.
Just because the disease disproportionately affects certain groups, of course, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect other groups or that members of those groups aren’t at risk. We rationalize the risk of this novel virus in different ways, as I myself have. But waving off concern about contracting the virus based on broad demographic trends is dubious.