From New York to the Amazon, the coronavirus pandemic has had its hand in claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands worldwide and infecting millions. Yet, among international groups, ethnic and indigenous minorities are disproportionately affected.
Despite the immediate thoughts that this could be due to genetics, the problem points as much to one which is sociological as biological, highlighting the continuing inequalities to be seen in a global context.
As data and statistics about Covid-19 continue to emerge, the fact that minorities around the world are getting hit considerably hard with the virus compared to those in white communities is becoming increasingly alarming.
According to a study from Yale, in the United States alone African Americans and Latinos have significantly higher mortality rates than white Anglo Saxons, at x 3.5 and x 2.5 respectively. Overall, only 13 percent of the US population is black, yet over 30 percent of all hospitalization from COVID-19 are represented by this demographic.
In New York City – one of the most massively affected cities by the virus – it is reported that death rates of African Americans are at 92.3 and Latinos at 74.3 per 100,000, as compared to 45.2 for those of white Anglo Saxon heritage.
The data is quite similar in the UK. The British Medical Association council chair in London, Chaand Nagpaul, notices that due to the lack of data, it is more difficult to come to a conclusion as to why this is happening, but it is clear to see that those in the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities are, in fact, disproportionately affected.
The suspicion around this topic initially began to rise when it was reported that the first 10 doctors to die of the virus in the UK were all of BAME backgrounds. Similar to the situation in the US, ethnic minorities make up about 13 percent of the overall population in the UK, yet account for about a third of the patients admitted into the hospital due to COVID-19. According to Public Health England, it is reported that Black and Asian people are now twice as likely to die from coronavirus as white Britons.
In addition, and despite a widespread lack of media coverage, this virus is taking the heaviest toll on indigenous societies all across the world. The Navajo Nation, for instance, officially has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus infection in the US.
This Native American territory that stretches through four states across the US collectively has 2,757 confirmed cases per 100,000 people, a number that officially exceeds New York, who originally had the most at 1,806 per 100,000. These numbers continued to gradually grow over the past few months, yet the community – as well as many other states in the US – was only given its USD$600m of federal coronavirus relief funding on May 6th, nearly two months after it was promised when the lockdown began.
The Navajo Nation has had a long struggle with getting funding from the US government during critical times from the moment they became a sovereign nation over 150 years ago. Combining considerable issues such as lack of funding with the simple fact that about 30 percent of homes on the reservation are without a basic need such as running water and higher poverty rates – 43% of the people on the reservation are below the poverty line – they are inevitably an easier target for this virus than the rest of the country.
Covid-19, furthermore, is easily contractible if a person has pre-existing conditions. These include people who are immunocompromised with medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, cancer, obesity, chronic lung diseases and more. The higher the rate of these medical problems, the more susceptible a person is to getting the virus. In addition, 15 percent of African Americans and 14 percent of Latinos have diabetes compared to 8 percent of whites. Latino and African Americans both have the highest rate of obesity compared to white Anglo Saxons with 49.6 percent for blacks and 44.8 percent for Latinos according to the Center for Disease Control.
The workplace is also a factor in Coronavirus infection, as essential services have a tendency to be staffed by people in the BAME community. This means every time they clock in for work, they are potentially risking their lives. Minorities working in service industry jobs such as food, transportation and delivery services work in these jobs often not because of choice, but instead because of lack of education due to educational inequality that makes it much harder for them to get higher paying jobs.
Education inequality stems from the lack of good public schools in the BAME communities due to lower funding, and not having the privilege of being able to pay for a private education. For instance, Hispanic workers account for 17% of total employment but constitute 53% of agricultural workers; Black or African Americans make up 12% of all employed workers, but account for 30% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses.
In Latin America, Brazil has the highest number of cases in the entire continent. The first known death due to Covid-19 of an indigenous person in the Amazon was a 15 year old boy from the Yanomami Tribe who passed on April 9th. Fears are surfacing at the thought of the virus spreading throughout the many Amazonian groups and affecting them as severely it has affected the Navajo Nation in the US.
Long before COVID-19 swept through the world, colonization in the US had already wiped out 90 percent of all indigenous people. This would not be the first time disease has swept through the Amazon and taken out massive chunks of the indigenous population either. Malaria, pneumonia, the flu, and different respiratory diseases have all been brought to these isolated areas by illegal loggers, and unwanted visitors such as missionaries.
In the 1990’s, the Murunahua people in Peru were depleted to 50 percent of their population from coming into contact with illegal loggers who spread influenza. This same instance has happened to a vast number of indigenous groups. As people who prefer to live in isolation, illnesses that many are already used to such as the flu and pneumonia have not yet reached these areas, and just like any new virus, it takes time for the human to build some type of immunity against it.
For these communities in the Amazon, this virus comes at a time where death and destruction was already wreaking havoc on their land. Deforestation due to legal and illegal resource extraction like logging and mining have all caused a massive loss of land for indigenous peoples. Although there are thought to be almost 100 different isolated groups in the Amazon, many of these previously discovered indigenous groups went from thousands of inhabitants to just a handful because of human contact and environmental factors.
Due to the lack of government resistance because of Covid-19 and the lockdown, the illegal activities on this land have only skyrocketed.
Globally, it is apparent that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting all ethnic and indigenous minorities. These facts highlight the significant issue, that the inequalities the BAME and indigenous communities have faced, and continue to face now, are detrimental to their lives in more ways than just physical violence. From racial inequality in health, to discrimination and harassment in the workplace, what is playing out in among the Coronavirus landscape is an amplification of the bias and structural divisions inherent in the global status quo. For once, we can say that Coronavirus is far from the problem.
For The Yucatan Times
Sydney Fowlkes is a Pennsylvania-based writer and journalist whose work focuses on social and environmental news features.