Respect Equality

Latinos disproportionately affected by coronavirus, sheds a light onto existing inequities

People wait to be tested for COVID-19 at a mobile testing station in a public school parking area in Compton, California, just south of Los Angeles, on April 28, 2020. St. John’s Well Child and Family Center is providing COVID-19 testing sites in African-American and Latino communities which have been neglected in terms of testing… ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Story at a glance

  • COVID-19 now accounts for 1 out of every 5 deaths among Latinos, according to data from the CDC.
  • Hispanic Americans continue to make up an increasingly disproportionate amount of the coronavirus cases in the country.
  • Experts say the pandemic has shed a light on the economic disparities faced by marginalized communities and people of color.

This July, the United States registered more than 1.9 million new COVID-19 infections, making it increasingly obvious that the infectious disease isn’t going anywhere any time soon. As case numbers around the world continue to slowly wane, here in the U.S. they are surging in several Midwestern states as well as the South and West, where the virus has been spreading rapidly after restrictions were lifted earlier this summer.

By now, more than 4,770,000 coronavirus cases and 156,000 fatalities have been reported in the United States, and more than 48,000 new cases and 524 deaths were just added Monday. Among these rising numbers are a disproportionate amount of Latinos, who make up an increasing percentage of COVID-19 related deaths. In fact, nearly 26,000 have fallen victim to the virus so far, which now accounts for 1 out of every 5 deaths among Latinos according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed by The Washington Post.

Minorities bear the brunt

Earlier this year when the virus first swept in, it became almost immediately obvious who was being affected the most: minority communities and people of color. The virus devastated Black communities, killing African Americans at a disproportionately high rate in nearly every jurisdiction that published race data. 

In New Orleans, for example, health officials realized back in April that their drive-through testing strategy for the coronavirus wasn’t working for everyone — census tract data revealed hot spots for the virus were located in predominantly low-income African American neighborhoods where many residents lacked cars, making it impossible for a wide swath of residents to even get tested in the first place. 

More recently, Latinos and Native Americans have made up an increasing proportion of COVID-19 related deaths. About two-thirds, or 65 percent, of Latino adults say the coronavirus outbreak is a major threat to the health of the U.S. population as a whole, compared with less than half of the general public, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Additionally, more Latinos than Americans overall say the outbreak is a major threat to their personal financial situation, day-to-day life in their local community and their personal health.

“We’ve seen that COVID-19 has actually shined a big, bright light on the inequities that have already existed in our communities before the disease came about,” says Dr. Amelie Ramirez, Director of Salud America and the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio. “Some of the reasons for these inequities include poverty — even though we’re very heterogeneous, almost 30 percent of our population lives in poverty. Another 20 percent lack access to health insurance, and many [Latino] adults have different kinds of comorbidities: higher rates of diabetes, obesity, certain cancers. So all of this is making them more at risk for the virus.”

Ramirez also brings up the important point that many Latino Americans are frontline workers and overrepresented in high contact jobs such as those in the food industry, retail and the health industry. “They’re the ones cleaning up our hospitals, and many of these jobs are hourly ones that come without paid leave. Many also live in multi-generational housing. So even if they might feel sick they can’t [call out]. They want to go to work because they need to be providers for their families.”

The numbers paint a picture

Latinos continue to make up an increasing share of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S, with 20 of the 27 states reporting positive coronavirus cases by ethnicity showing that Hispanics have consistently made up a disproportionate share of deaths in both June and early July. Regardless of whether the state’s overall cases have been decreasing or rising, Latinos have been four times as likely as whites to be hospitalized, according to data from the CDC.

In places where the Hispanic share of the population is far higher than the national average, the shifting demographic of those afflicted is the most obvious, such as in Florida, California and Arizona. In California, Latinos account for only 39 percent of the state population, but 46 percent of all virus deaths and 57 percent of virus deaths reported in the last week of June. In Texas, where Hispanics make up 40 percent of the population, they have accounted for an approximately proportional share of all virus deaths until the last week of June, when they accounted for 57 percent of the deaths. Half of the 7,261 Texans who have died of COVID-19 were Latino, according to state health figures, despite Latinos representing just about 40 percent of the population.

In San Joaquin County, Calif., USA Today reported that the first free walk-up testing site opened in May was a two-hour bus ride for Latinos living in the city of Tracy, for example, or a 36-mile drive for anyone with a car, and in Arkansas they had a single Spanish-speaking caseworker for two counties with large populations of Latinos. An Omaha health center serving low-income Latinos said more than half of its coronavirus tests in April came back positive, and Nebraska did not open a new testing site in that neighborhood for weeks.

“COVID-19 has really laid bare the life and death consequences of discriminatory laws like residential segregation, law enforcement practices, lack of worker protections and the deliberate under investment and communities of color,” says Sarah de Guia, the Chief Executive Officer of ChangeLab Solutions, a national organization using laws and policies to advance health equity. “It’s unsurprising then that the Latinx and other underserved communities have been disproportionately impacted by both the economic and health toll of COVID-19.”

“It’s become very clear to us that we need to get more public health messaging out in a culturally relevant and linguistically translated way to our communities,” adds Ramirez. “Latinos are already faced with language and healthcare access barriers to begin with. We wanted to ensure that our Latino communities are getting an equitable share of culturally relevant information during this outbreak, including actions to address this pandemic.” 

She says that when the pandemic struck, Salud America took action, producing blog posts on the pandemic effects on Latinos, providing role model stories to give an example of how people could respond meaningfully to the crisis and developing bilingual infographics. Ramirez emphasizes that there is still a lot to be done, though, not only to help lower case numbers in Latino communities, but to also come up with long term solutions to address the underlying inequities that have been aggravated during the pandemic.

“Oftentimes once a crisis has been resolved, people turn away and go back to normal, but this is a situation where we cannot go back to normal. We really need to continue to focus on how can we improve the living wages in our community to reduce poverty, how can we improve our working conditions to make sure that our employees have the coverage and the paid leave that they need. How can we ensure equity is a component of the recovery. We need to get the voices of our communities into these new task forces that are being developed so that we truly have a voice,” says Ramirez. 

“We need to make a commitment to action [in order] to change policies and practices, which needs to occur at all levels from the local to the federal level. So, we have a lot of work ahead of us.”