Why Are People of Color More Likely to Die From Coronavirus Than White People?

Politicians have been keen to share the message that the "coronavirus doesn't discriminate" but early indications show the impact is being felt by some communities more than others.

Although people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds form 13 percent of the U.K. population, they make up 35 percent of all patients in intensive care, according to the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, which collected data on 2,000 patients.

Furthermore, the first 10 doctors to die from coronavirus in the U.K, were all from BAME backgrounds.

The sad story of Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, a 28-year-old heavily pregnant nurse who died from coronavirus, is the most recent example of the tragedy sweeping the world as a whole, but the harshest effects are being felt even more strongly in some communities.

A small blessing in the time of tragedy is that her baby survived and has been named after her mom.

But what lies behind the disproportionate impact on BAME communities?

The issue is complicated but, experts tell Newsweek, there are two key factors contributing to an increase in people from BAME backgrounds' vulnerability to the virus:

  1. They are more likely to be found in key worker roles; and
  2. They are more likely to be in poverty.

"We know that the disparity affecting those from BAME backgrounds is mirrored in other parts of the world, for example in the U.S. in Illinois there is a disparity too," head of the British Medical Association Dr. Chaand Nagpaul tells Newsweek.

One of the reasons BAME communities were particularly affected was because of other health risks higher among BAME groups, Nagpaul says.

"There is a higher proportion of BAME people suffering from hypertension, diabetes and heart disease," Nagpaul says.

"We know those are associated with risks for a greater level of illness. We also know that there are basic health inequalities and, at a time of pandemic, these are exasperated.

"We know that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to suffer ill health across the board, which is another factor to explain why BAME communities are particularly affected.

"30 percent of Bangladeshi households suffer from overcrowding, as well as 15 percent of Black African households, compared to just 2 percent of White households.

"It means many of these households are multi-generational, elderly members are most at risk, they can't be shielded due to overcrowding."

Nurse Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong died from coronavirus
Nurse Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong was heavily pregnant when she died. Boateng family handout

Nagpaul added that there were a higher proportion of BAME workers in key worker roles, in transport and employed by supermarkets, as well as in care homes and health sectors, which could help explain the increased risk.

He urged the government to do more to ensure its public health messages were reaching those communities who had a lower level of English proficiency and who, for example, found it harder to use the National Health Service (NHS) 111 service due to language barriers.

There is difficulty with getting a clear picture of the situation, partly because of the scale and ferocity of the pandemic, but also because exact figures around ethnicity and coronavirus are not being recorded by a central body.

"Neither Public Health England nor the Office for National Statistics or the Department For Health are currently disaggregating COVID-19 deaths by ethnicity," Zubaida Haque, deputy director of race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, told Newsweek.

"The data we've had so far, that shows disproportionality, is not government data. There may be some limited data that health bodies have started collecting, but it's certainly not being made public."

Data like this has already been collected in states across the U.S. and campaigners believe this data is needed to fully understand the impact of the virus and help mitigate against its impact.

Haque says that without the data relating to ethnicity, there could be no real understanding of the "scale of the spread in different communities or who the most vulnerable are" when it comes to coronavirus.

"If you don't measure something, it's as though the problem doesn't exist," she says. "Although the virus doesn't discriminate, different groups of individuals, because of their socio-economic status or because of overcrowding at home or their position in the labor market, particularly if they're in low-paid key worker roles, their ability and resilience to cope with the virus will be different.

"Half of BAME children live in poverty, that fact doesn't go away because of the coronavirus," says Haque.

She called on U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to ensure that wider economic measures are sufficient to ensure the most vulnerable in society are protected, adding that the five-week wait for Universal Credit welfare payments was harming BAME and other communities from low-income backgrounds.

Haque also highlighted what in her view are further problems: "The two-child limit which restricts the child element in Universal Credit and tax credits to the first two children also needs to go, given how many children it disadvantages.

"We need to make sure that BAME families are in a socio-economic position to weather the economic impact of COVID-19."

The U.K. government has yet to confirm to Newsweek what plans are in place to understand how people from minority backgrounds have been impacted differently by the pandemic.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson says: "Any death from this disease is a tragedy and there is emerging evidence to suggest that COVID-19 may be having a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority groups.

"As part of a continuous effort to reduce health inequalities, the government will be working with [Public Health England] to look further into this and we will be releasing more details shortly."