Well-Being Longevity

Structural racism associated with higher COVID-19 death rates in Louisiana

“Black communities in parishes with both higher and lower population densities experience higher levels of stressors, leading to greater COVID-19 mortality rate.”
face mask on ground
The Associated Press/ Carolyn Kaster

Story at a glance

  • COVID-19 took a disproportionate toll on Black populations in the United States.

  • New research on societal stressors in Louisiana underscores the role structural racism played in these poor health outcomes.

  • The data can help policy makers better tailor interventions to improve health outcomes and address disparities for future public health crises.

Understanding structural racism’s effect on health care requires taking a long view of events and policies that led up to current health outcomes.

In Louisiana, researchers did just that and determined structural racism and inequities, such as proximity of predominantly Black neighborhoods to industrial facilities and higher rates of uninsured individuals, contributed to the disproportionate effect COVID-19 had on Black residents in the state. 

Findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To conduct the study, researchers at the University of Maryland assessed spatial distribution of social, environmental and economic stressors throughout Louisiana to identify aggregate stressors.

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Using this data, authors then evaluated any correlation between stressors, cumulative health risks, COVID-19 mortality and size of Black populations, they explained. 

In Louisiana, Black residents make up 32 percent of the state’s population, yet accounted for half of the state’s known COVID-19-related deaths. Rates of chronic illness such as asthma, diabetes and obesity, are heightened in Black populations, who also tend to have a higher likelihood of stroke. These comorbidities increased individuals’ risks of poor COVID-19 outcomes.

However, a series of discriminatory practices, including employment discrimination, poor access to education, housing and medical care, all contribute to higher disease rates in this population.   

“Black communities in parishes with both higher and lower population densities experience higher levels of stressors, leading to greater COVID-19 mortality rate,” authors wrote, adding their work highlights how vulnerable communities are at a higher risk of poor outcomes during a public health crisis. 

Data from 2016 show Louisiana ranked 10th among states with the highest rates of populations with multiple chronic diseases, while 98 percent of the state’s population lives in an area with a shortage of health professionals. 

“Our research provides policy makers with very useful insights about the disproportionate burden of Black communities and the nonstationary distribution of this disproportion across Louisiana,” said co-author Guangxiao Hu in a press release.