White Americans are now more likely to die from Covid-19 than black Americans, according to new analysis of coronavirus figures.
The shift has surprised experts. An imbalance in death rates among the country’s racial groups has been a defining feature of the now-two-and-a-half-year-long pandemic, but it was not expected that the ratio would reverse.
From the start in early 2020, Covid-19 was killing more black people than white, a phenomenon experts put down to a disparity between the healthcare access available to the different groups, and the prevalence of underlying health conditions.
Inequality in exposure, spread, vulnerability and treatment among communities that needed the most protection from the virus meant that Black, Latino and Native American people were, cumulatively, 60 percent more likely to die from Covid-19 than their white compatriots.
However, when the Delta variant peaked in September 2021, the racial differences in Covid-19 deaths began to fade, according to analysis by the Washington Post.
While black deaths declined, white deaths never did – and instead increased steadily until the ratio between the groups flipped.
White Americans are now more likely to die from Covid-19 than black Americans, according to new analysis of coronavirus figures. Pictured: A graph showing a comparison of the Covid-19 death rate among white and black Americans, per million people
The Washington Post said it analysed every death during the pandemic, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It found that early in the crisis, the disparity between racial groups was particularly stark in dense urban areas, where black people died at several times the rate of white people – giving the examples of Memphis and Fayette County.
The gap in death rate fluctuated over time, getting wider and narrower, but never vanishing until mid-October 2021. Then, for the first time in the pandemic, the death rate among white Americans rose above other groups.
The ratio flipped back again in the winter of 2021-2022, when the Omicron variant ran rampant through communities, with the black death rate once again soaring over the white death rate and overwhelming healthcare providers in the Northeast.
When this surge once again subsided, the black death rate again dropped below the white rate, and has remained roughly equal or higher ever since.
Looking into why this has occurred, the Post first pointed to the way Covid-19 works, and said the spread of the virus was affected by centuries of racial and economic inequalities deeply ingrained in the United States long before the pandemic began.
The elderly and those with underlying health conditions – such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity – are more likely to suffer from severe illness and death.
All such underlying health conditions affect members of the black communities in American at a younger age, thanks to factors such as stress.
But the virus is also worse for unvaccinated adults, which polls have found are more likely to vote Republican, the Post said. The unvaccinated are also at much higher risk of infection, severe illness and death.
Covid-19 spread across America at an already divisive period of American history, with politics greatly polarized. Anti-coronavirus measures – such as vaccines, lockdowns and whether to wear masks – became flashpoints in modern politics, and a matter of identity.
Pictured: A man is given a dose of Covid-19 vaccine, August 5, 2020 (file photo)
As the pandemic rolled on for months and then years, the damage done by the virus – with its new variants – increased as these debates became more fractious.
At the start of the pandemic, black people were more than three times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people.
This gap narrowed as 2020 wore on, but not because fewer black Americans were dying – but because white Americans were dying in increasing numbers.
Summer 2021 saw a glimmer of hope, when some of the lowest numbers of Covid-19 deaths were being recorded as vaccines were rolled out across the country.
But the virus mutated, and the Delta variant swept across the United States, particularly among the unvaccinated. The Post said this came at a time when the trust in government, medicine and institutions was also eroding.
This slowed the vaccine uptake, and thus lessened their societal protection.
The lull between the Delta and Omicron waves saw white deaths overtake Black deaths for the first time in the pandemic, and while deaths among black Americans again overtook their white compatriots during Omicron, it flipped again once the largest Omicron wave subsided.
Tasleem Padamsee, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who researched vaccine use, told the Washington Post that when a ‘health disparity’ is described as ‘disappearing,’ this means that ‘the worse-off group is getting better.’ ‘We don’t usually mean that the group that had a systematic advantage got worse,’ she said.
The Post said one explanation for the unexpected shift is that many Republicans chose not to be vaccinated, and not to follow the public health guidance.
Rural hospital closures also took their toll, while many people – particularly in red states – became fatigued with measures, such as lockdowns and masks.
Pictured: A woman recieved a dose of Covid-19 vaccine, December 14, 2020
Meanwhile, vaccine sceptics pushed alternatives to proven Covid treatments, and the use of things such as masks became a social stigma among some groups.
The Post said initially, vaccine skepticism was around the same rate among both black and white Americans. However, Padamsee said black communities were quicker to overcome this hesitancy, and soon realized the necessity of vaccination.
Therefore, the Post’s research argues, many black Americans suffered because of the entrenched social inequalities in terms of health and access to healthcare, while many white Americans suffered as a result of apathy and ideology.
When the alarm was raised over the risk Covid-19 posed to the most at risk racial groups in America, work was done to counter the racial inequality. Vaccine access and acceptance among people of color expanded.
Meanwhile, the belief that vaccines and other preventative measures infringe civil liberties grew among white conservatives, the Post said.
As one problem was addressed, another was growing, going some way to explaining why the gap between the two death rates has shrunk and flipped.
Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Post that the shift in death rates has ‘vastly different implications for public health interventions.’
She said now, officials must not only contend with ‘the cumulative impact of injustice’ on black Americans and other deprived groups, but also must work out how to connect with Americans now ‘ideologically opposed to the vaccine’.