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From 1918 Flu to COVID-19: U.S. Struggles with Better Outcomes for Minorities

Racial gaps in states such as Minnesota have been getting more attention in recent years, and some experts say those gaps contribute to higher infection rates for COVID-19. (Adobe Stock)
Racial gaps in states such as Minnesota have been getting more attention in recent years, and some experts say those gaps contribute to higher infection rates for COVID-19. (Adobe Stock)
April 23, 2020

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Data from health departments in various parts of the country show that black people are disproportionately affected by the new coronavirus.

Some of those numbers are reflected in Minnesota, and experts say long standing equity issues are at play here and elsewhere.

University of Minnesota sociology professor Elizabeth Wrigley-Field has researched racial inequalities in infectious diseases. She says there are two things that usually factor into how a person catches a virus -- exposure and your body's resistance to that exposure.

Wrigley-Field says for the current pandemic, minorities are faced with several situations of high exposure.

"Working in jobs that are considered essential, being asked to work without proper protection, it means riding crowded public transportation to jobs," she explains. "It means also living in crowded circumstances."

And she says minorities often struggle with underlying health issues, making it harder to fight off a virus, leading to higher mortality rates.

Looking back at the 1918 flu, Wrigley-Field says there was only one wave of that pandemic where black people were not infected at a higher rate than whites.

But she says that's largely because they were affected at a much higher rate during the initial wave, allowing their bodies to build some immunity to that strain.

As for COVID-19, Minnesota officials say blacks represent 13% of infections, but make up less than 7% of the state's population. However, the death rates for blacks in Minnesota is lower than other states.

University of Wisconsin sociologist Pamela Oliver says the equity issues connected to these outcomes have been around for a long time. She says reversing them won't happen overnight, even if policymakers and society acknowledge a need for change.

"If you were trying to get rid of health disparities, you would need to be working everywhere in the system -- both reducing inequality overall, and then paying attention to the ways in which racism is an additional factor over and above economic inequality," she states.

And Wrigley-Field says for systemic changes to take hold, it often happens when policymakers are faced with a lot of public pressure.

"One of the open questions now is what kind of public pressure will be brought to bear, and we just don't know the answer to that yet," she states.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - MN