White Americans are now more likely to die from Covid-19 than black Americans, according to a new analysis of coronavirus figures.
The shift has taken experts by surprise. An imbalance in death rates among the country’s racial groups has been a defining feature of the now two-and-a-half-year-long pandemic, but the ratio was not expected to reverse.
As of early 2020, Covid-19 killed more black people than white people, a phenomenon experts have attributed to a disparity between access to health care for different groups and the prevalence of underlying health conditions.
Disparities in exposure, spread, vulnerability and treatment among communities most in need of protection from the virus meant black, Latino and Native American people were cumulatively 60 percent more likely to die from Covid-19 than their white compatriots.
However, when the Delta variant peaked in September 2021, the racial disparities in Covid-19 deaths began to blur, according to analysis by the Washington Post.
While black deaths fell, white deaths never did — and instead, steadily increased until the ratio between the groups changed.
White Americans are now more likely to die from Covid-19 than black Americans, according to a new analysis of coronavirus figures. Pictured: A graph comparing the Covid-19 death rate among white and black Americans, per million people
The Washington Post said it analyzed every death during the pandemic, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It found that inequality between racial groups early in the crisis was particularly high in densely populated urban areas, where black people died several times faster than whites — with examples from Memphis and Fayette County.
The gap in the death rate fluctuated over time, widening and narrowing, but never disappearing until mid-October 2021. Then, for the first time in the pandemic, the death rate among white Americans rose above other groups.
The ratio bounced back in the winter of 2021-2022, when the Omicron variant was rampant in communities, with the black death rate once again rising above the white death rate and overwhelming caregivers in the Northeast.
As this wave receded, the black death rate fell below the white number again and has remained about the same or higher since then.
Investigating why this happened, the Post first pointed to the way Covid-19 works, saying that the spread of the virus was influenced by centuries of racial and economic inequalities that were deeply rooted in the United States long before the pandemic began.
The elderly and those with underlying health conditions — such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity — are more likely to experience serious illness and death.
All of these underlying health conditions affect members of black communities in America at a younger age, thanks to factors such as stress.
But the virus is also worse for unvaccinated adults, who are more likely to vote Republican according to polls, the Post said. The unvaccinated are also at a much higher risk of infection, serious illness and death.
Covid-19 spread across America in an already divisive period in American history, with politics highly polarized. Anti-coronavirus measures — such as vaccines, lockdowns and mask-wearing — became flashpoints in modern politics and a matter of identity.
Pictured: A man receives a dose of Covid-19 vaccine, August 5, 2020 (file photo)
As the pandemic dragged on for months and years, the damage done by the virus — with its new variants — increased as these debates intensified.
At the start of the pandemic, black people were more than three times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people.
This gap narrowed as 2020 progressed, not because fewer black Americans died, but because more and more white Americans died.
There was a glimmer of hope in the summer of 2021, as some of the lowest numbers of Covid-19 deaths were recorded as vaccines rolled out across the country.
But the virus mutated and the Delta strain spread across the United States, especially among the unvaccinated. According to The Post, this came at a time when trust in government, medicine and institutions was also crumbling.
This delayed vaccine uptake and thus reduced their societal protection.
The lull between the Delta and Omicron waves caused white deaths to overtake black deaths for the first time in the pandemic, and while deaths among black Americans during Omicron again overtook their white compatriots, it turned again when the largest Omicron wave sank.
Tasleem Padamsee, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who has researched vaccine use, told the Washington Post that when a “health disparity” is described as “disappearing,” it means “the lagging group gets better.” “Normally we don’t mean that the group that had a systematic advantage got worse,” she said.
The Post said one explanation for the unexpected shift is that many Republicans chose not to be vaccinated and not follow public health guidelines.
The closure of rural hospitals also took their toll, while many people – especially in red states – were fatigued by measures such as lockdowns and masks.
Pictured: A woman received a dose of Covid-19 vaccine, December 14, 2020
Meanwhile, vaccine skeptics pushed for alternatives to proven Covid treatments, and the use of things like masks became a social stigma among some groups.
The Post initially said that skepticism about vaccines was about the same among both black and white Americans. However, Padamsee said black communities were able to overcome this hesitation more quickly and quickly realized the need for vaccination.
Because of this, the Post’s research finds, many black Americans have suffered as a result of entrenched social inequalities in health and access to health care, while many white Americans have suffered as a result of apathy and ideology.
When alarms were raised about the risk Covid-19 posed to America’s most at-risk racial groups, work was underway to curb racial inequality. Expanded access to and acceptance of vaccines among people of color.
Meanwhile, the belief that vaccines and other preventative measures infringe on civil liberties grew among white conservatives, according to the Post.
As one problem was addressed, another grew, which somewhat explains why the gap between the two death rates has narrowed and reversed.
Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health, told the Post that the shift in death rates “has very different implications for public health interventions.”
She now said officials should not only contend with “the cumulative impact of injustice” on black Americans and other disadvantaged groups, but also figure out how to connect with Americans who are now “ideologically against the vaccine.”