While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our daily lives for one year, it has also further illuminated the inequities in our healthcare system experienced daily by racial and ethnic minorities. When we look at a past pandemic, the 1918 Flu, and compare it to the COVID-19 pandemic today, it’s clear there are still health disparities for Black Americans today—even 100 years later. It is critical that doctors like myself, as well as healthcare innovators and policymakers, work to break down these barriers and improve care for members of the Black community.
While experts believe racial segregation may have contributed to Black Americans contracting the 1918 Flu at lower rates than white Americans, Black patients were more likely to die from the flu if they did become ill compared to white patients. Beyond the pandemic, Black Americans were suffering from higher rates of illness and death compared to white people. Reports in 1900 assert that Black communities were experiencing a 69% higher death rate from a number of diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, compared to white people.
And now, more than 100 years later, Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, dying at 2.4 times the rate of white Americans. In several states across the country, the difference in mortality is shocking. For instance, in Chicago, it has been reported that Black people account for nearly 60% of COVID-19 deaths while only making up 30% of the population. Several major cities across the country have the same disproportionate trend.