People across the world are struggling to minimize risks related to COVID-19. As it grows and spreads within diverse populations, scientists are continually gaining insight into the nature of the virus and disease.
In the United States, public health data has shown an alarming pattern: Black Americans are being disproportionately infected, sickened, and killed by COVID-19 compared to other Americans. Though there are some concerns with the data collection and reporting according to FiveThirtyEight, such as not having a universal guideline, the problem has been reported across regions and states.
What is causing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black people in the US?
The underlying causes for this pattern are complex and still being uncovered. However, even before the global COVID-19 pandemic, Black Americans statistically had adverse health outcomes, with less access to care, being twice as likely to be uninsured, and experiencing toxic stress related to high inequality.
Black Americans are more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure according to the CDC. A critical reason underlying all of this is structural and societal inequity, including racist US policies around education, homeownership, and the justice system.
Regarding COVID-19 in particular, part of the answer also lies in “essential work,” and the characteristics of people that have continued to work during this time when many are socially distancing by staying at home. Those still working have a higher risk of exposure to the virus.
In the US, only about 20% of black workers can work from home, compared to roughly 30% of white workers. This disparity is likely greater in cities with high racial minority populations and greater risk of disease spread due to higher population density.
The inability to work from home can also mean a loss of work, as the economy is hit hard by the slowness of human activity. Those least likely to be able to work from home (at risk of COVID-19 or of losing their income) are also people that were earning disproportionately lower wages.
There is some evidence that Non-Hispanic Black Americans are less likely to have access to paid sick leave, compared to Non-Hispanic Whites. Compounding needs for child care while schools are closed, and the serious impact of the pandemic on mental health, also aggravate this difficult situation.
COVID-19 has also deeply affected many parts of the US prison system and jails, especially Black Americans. By the nature of correctional facilities, and due to frequent overcrowding, social distancing can be nearly impossible, posing a risk to both incarcerated people and those who work in facilities.
Living situations may also contribute to this increased risk, with Black Americans more often living in more densely populated places, and with a potentially higher rate of intergenerational families living in one household. This can make it more difficult to physically distance from sick family members and from neighbors.
However, as with other health issues, some of the underlying reasons for increased cases of COVID-19 among Black Americans can be within our control. Now is an important time for everyone, and especially those more vulnerable, to do all in their power to protect themselves and mitigate their risk of becoming sick.
Am I at a higher risk for COVID-19?
These risk factors are linked to worse COVID-19 outcomes, based on data from JAMA Network Open journal:
- Older age
- Male sex
- Heart disease
Do some of these sound familiar? That’s probably because many of them were mentioned above, among health issues that disproportionately affect Black Americans.
Modifiable risk factors
Modifiable risk factors are those external influences that theoretically, we could change. Quitting smoking, limiting alcohol, exercising several times a week, and eating a nutritious diet low in sugar, salt, and fast food are all examples of modifying the risk of disease. However, as outlined above, these are not always a simple matter of individual choice.
When we ask people to make the choices above, we have to ask, for example, are a variety of healthy foods available nearby and affordable? Is it safe and socially “normal” to exercise in the person’s community? Are there known, culturally appropriate resources to help someone quit smoking? Do common attitudes, beliefs, and understanding support limiting alcohol intake?
Policy measures, culture, community resources, and the healthcare system all affect people’s access to healthy choices. The CDC has outlined what healthcare workers, public health professionals, and community organizers can do to better support racial minority health. Community and faith organizations can also provide critical support to people in need.
Still, many of us are able to make healthier choices. Below are some of the ways to improve your health and increase the power of your immune system. With the risk of infection high, it is important that our body is prepared to recover and protect us from becoming seriously ill.
What can I do now to strengthen my immune system?
- Quit smoking.
- Limit alcohol intake.
- Take care of your mental health.
Smoking, and vaping e-cigarettes, are both shown to damage the immune system and hurt the body’s ability to fight disease. COVID-19 is known to be a largely respiratory disease that damages the lungs. Now is not the time to put any chemicals or external substances in your lungs. There has never been a better time to quit smoking or vaping. If you need support for quitting, check with your local health department or national public health authority for resources.
Exercising, even if it’s just taking a walk or gentle stretching, will improve your blood circulation and your mood. Regular exercise can help decrease depression, and helps protect against many of the precise diseases we have discussed above–diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer. It lowers the risk of obesity, which is also linked to many of the same negative health outcomes.
Can your family find a time to walk, dance, or follow an exercise video together? Maybe you want to use exercise as a reason to get some fresh air and have alone time. Whatever the circumstance, fitting movement into your routine will likely help both your mental and physical health. Remember, if you are going outside, always wear a cloth mask or cover over your mouth and nose.
In some places, rumors have spread about drinking alcohol to protect against COVID-19. This is a myth, and drinking large amounts of alcohol can be acutely dangerous. Research shows negative long-term impacts of heavy drinking, including increased lung diseases and weakened immune system, which are both critical in the age of COVID-19.
There are many serious effects of stress on the body and health. Are you feeling extra stressed-out or worried due to COVID-19? Stuck in the same routine, or concerned about the future? You aren’t alone. Try to make time for yourself each day to relax your mind.
This means different things to different people. Maybe it is setting aside time to make a phone or video call to connect with a friend. Maybe it is taking time to exercise or sing. Many activities can increase our endorphins and our mood, but when we are stuck at home in the same routine day after day, it can be important to intentionally make time for mental health. It could work best for you to reserve time in your calendar or set an alarm reminder.
Meditation can be extremely helpful to calm the mind and increase awareness, and has a positive impact on overall health. There are many apps and digital-based platforms to introduce and guide you through meditation.
You may also need to take intentional breaks from watching the news or browsing social media. It is easy to get wrapped up in the constant onslaught of new, urgent information available to us, and it is okay, even beneficial, to unplug sometimes.
How else should I protect myself and my family from COVID-19?
Follow the direction of health officials in your country or locality. Click here for current, simple guidance from the US CDC, which includes:
- Wash hands often and thoroughly with soap and water
- If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
- Avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth
- Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth face cover when out in public
- Maintain distance (six feet) between yourself and anyone you don’t live with
- Avoid close contact with those who are sick, including those in your home
- Cover coughs and sneezes with a single-use tissue, and immediately throw away the tissue and thoroughly wash hands
- Do not gather in groups
- Clean and disinfect frequently-used surfaces every day.
CDC. (2020, February 11). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html
Kim, S. R. (2020, May 7). Many States Are Reporting Race Data For Only Some COVID-19 Cases And Deaths. FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/many-states-are-reporting-race-data-for-only-some-covid-19-cases-and-deaths/
Not everybody can work from home: Black and Hispanic workers are much less likely to be able to telework. (n.d.). Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved May 8, 2020, from https://www.epi.org/blog/black-and-hispanic-workers-are-much-less-likely-to-be-able-to-work-from-home/
Ann P. Bartel, Soohyun Kim, Jaehyun Nam, Maya Rossin-Slater, Christopher Ruhm, and Jane Waldfogel, “Racial and ethnic disparities in access to and use of paid family and medical leave: evidence from four nationally representative datasets,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2019, https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2019.2.
Sarkar, D., Jung, M. K., & Wang, H. J. (2015). Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, 37(2), 153–155. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590612/
Yancy, C. W. (2020). COVID-19 and African Americans. JAMA. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2020.6548