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How COVID-19 is highlighting racial disparities in Americans’ health

The coronavirus pandemic has shed new light on racial disparities in American health outcomes. Economic disadvantage is one reason Black people in the United States are on average less healthy than white people -- but there are other causes, including the ongoing stress of systemic racism. Paul Solman reports in the second of a two-part Race Matters series.

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  • Amna Nawz:

    Now the second of a two-part Race Matters report from Paul Solman on how past and present inequalities have sapped the wealth and health of Black Americans.

    Last night, Paul focused on economic matters. Tonight, he looks at health outcomes, all magnified in the time of COVID.

    His report is part of our ongoing series Making Sense.

  • Paul Solman:

    Within 48 hours, Desmond Tolbert lost both mother and father to COVID-19.

  • Desmond Tolbert:

    Both your parents at the same time, it's hard.

  • Paul Solman:

    Back in April, Black rural Georgia, where the Tolberts live, had some of America's highest pandemic death rates, foreshadowing today's stunning statistic, that Black Americans are at least twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than whites, almost four times more likely when you control for the fact that the Black population is younger.

  • Horrace Sheffield:

    I have never dealt with so much death in my life in such a short period of time as this.

  • Paul Solman:

    Longtime Detroit civil rights activist Rev. Horace Sheffield, 65, had COVID-19 himself in March. He recovered. But his congregation has been decimated.

  • Horrace Sheffield:

    We all experience death in urban settings, people who are killed before their time in violence and all that, but nothing like this at all, ever.

  • Paul Solman:

    Prison guard David Felton is one of Sheffield's parishioners.

  • David Felton:

    I was in the hospital for five days, off work for 30 days, after contracting COVID.

  • K.C. Wilbourn-Snapp:

    I also had a relative that passed from COVID-19.

  • Pail Solman:

    Fellow congregant K.C. Wilbourn-Snapp.

  • K.C. Wilbourn-Snapp:

    He was 51 years old.

  • Shafina Che Wiggens:

    I lost my husband to the virus. I also had it myself. So it's been pretty tough.

  • Paul Solman:

    Shafina Che's husband, Dajuan Wiggens, was 47.

  • Shafina Che Wiggens:

    He died March the 31st.

  • Paul Solman:

    Why, if he's only 47?

  • Shafina Che Wiggens:

    Well, he did have high blood pressure.

  • Paul Solman:

    And thus the puzzle that prompted this story: Why are African Americans dying at a much higher rate than whites?

  • Trevon Logan:

    Factor one would be essential worker employment.

  • Paul Solman:

    Economics explains a lot, says Professor Trevon Logan.

  • Trevon Logan:

    A second factor would be density of living arrangements and higher rates of public transportation use.

  • Paul Solman:

    As Marcus Thorpe put it of his 90-minute New York bus commute:

  • Marcus Thorpe:

    If you don't have a car, you got to get on something. You know what I'm saying?

  • Paul Solman:

    And there are a number of other problems that threaten the health of Black Americans broadly, like the food desert, which is L'Tanya Holley's D.C. neighborhood.

  • L’Tanya Holley:

    There's not a grocery store in this area. The urban farm up the street was closed down. So what are the people supposed to do? They have to eat.

  • Mainza Snapp:

    Where I grew up on the East Side, it's not uncommon to see Coney Island McDonald's, whatever, the fast-food restaurant.

  • Paul Solman:

    That's Mainza Snapp of Detroit.

  • Mainza Snapp:

    And then you see the liquor stores everywhere promoting cigarettes, alcohol, every single thing that you wouldn't see in a white neighborhood.

  • Lisa Cooper:

    We do know that socioeconomic status has a huge impact on a whole host of health outcomes.

  • Paul Solman:

    Public health physician Lisa Cooper is professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins.

  • Lisa Cooper:

    African Americans are at greater risk for developing chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease.

  • Paul Solman:

    All contribute, says Dr. Cooper, to a health condition among Blacks sometimes called weathering, which has been linked to cumulative stress.

  • Lisa Cooper:

    The body responds as if it's, you know, trying to defend itself. And so there are elevated levels of stress hormones.

  • Paul Solman:

    Which everyone knows are no good for you.

  • Lisa Cooper:

    Also leads to premature aging. And so it would explain a lot of the phenomena that we see among African Americans.

  • Rashawn Ray:

    There is another study that looked at telomeres.

  • Paul Solman:

    Telomeres are the protective caps at the end of chromosomes that get shorter with age, explains sociologist Rashawn Ray.

  • Rashawn Ray:

    And what this research found is that Black teenagers who are living in neighborhoods that are underserved, that have high levels of crime, their telomeres are the same length as elderly men, suggesting the ways in which weathering and chronic stress has impacted them.

  • Paul Solman:

    But let's be clear. For Black Americans, economic stressors are just part of the story.

  • David Williams:

    America has recently awakened to a steady drumbeat of unarmed Black men being shot by the police.

  • Paul Solman:

    A TED Talk by sociologist David Williams.

  • David Williams:

    What is even a bigger story is that, every seven minutes, a Black person dies prematurely in the United States.

  • Paul Solman:

    Why?

  • David Williams:

    Research has found that higher levels of discrimination are associated with the elevated risk of a broad range of diseases and even premature mortality.

  • Paul Solman:

    And that's separate from the effects of economic disadvantage.

  • Lisa Cooper:

    Racism has an independent effect on health. You can have African Americans who are upper middle-class who are experiencing much higher rates of disease than you would see among white Americans at the same level of socioeconomic status.

  • William Grier:

    We feel it is a very important cause.

  • Paul Solman:

    In 1968, psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs co-authored a book called "Black Rage."

  • Price Cobbs:

    All Black people are angry, not just a few militants whom one may see on television. Black people in this country have had it.

  • Paul Solman:

    By 2020, says economist Sam Myers:

  • Samuel Myers:

    It just builds up. It builds up. And, at some point, you just explode.

    Let's stop shooting our young men.

  • Paul Solman:

    Myers, born deaf, hardly needs to lip read to understand a not untypical encounter with police in Minneapolis, where he's been a professor for decades.

  • Samuel Myers:

    Put your hands up on the dashboard. I mean, I learned very quickly that it is dangerous to reach into your pocket to get your wallet, that the police officer instinctively believes that you're reaching for your weapon.

  • Paul Solman:

    Outrageous, arguably. Enraging, for sure.

  • Samuel Myers:

    And so what we have done is that we have kind of moved our anger internally, because we believe that we have a job to do with respect to proving that we are worthy, that we are capable, that we are productive citizens. But that's what happens when that builds up.

  • Trevon Logan:

    I have been pulled over by the police more than 10 times in my own life.

  • Paul Solman:

    Again, economist Trevon Logan.

  • Trevon Logan:

    I think it's impossible for anyone who's lived as an African American in this country to say that they haven't experienced racially specific stress. And that stress will have physiological consequences.

  • Paul Solman:

    Which may explain why, by age 55, more than 75 percent of Black Americans have hypertension, blood pressure higher than 130 over 80, compared with less than 50 percent of whites.

    You have high blood pressure?

  • Trevon Logan:

    Yes, definitely.

  • Horrace Sheffield:

    That's why this COVID-19 has been such a harassing menace in our community, because people already were unhealthy.

  • Paul Solman:

    And less access to health care makes matters worse, says Rashawn Ray.

  • Rayshawn Ray:

    Black men are less likely to utilize health care because of discrimination that's embedded within the health care system.

    There's a recent study, really important for COVID-19, showing that Blacks were six times more likely to be turned away from testing once they even went to the hospital.

  • Man:

    This family's story is so upsetting.

  • Paul Solman:

    In a Detroit case that made national news, 56-year old Gary Fowler died at home on April 7, having been denied a test at three hospitals. His father had died of COVID hours earlier. His wife was hospitalized the same day. His children later tested positive, including stepson Keith Gambrell.

  • Keith Gamnbrell:

    I understand now why Black people are the highest affected mortality rate with this, because we're being pushed home to die and infect our family.

  • Paul Solman:

    That's one reason why Reverend Sheffield has started a testing program that's already served thousands.

  • Horrace Sheffield:

    We understand that, because of the hue of our skin, you know, we're being treated differently than other people. And COVID-19 just vividly portrays just how that exists.

  • Paul Solman:

    And continues to.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.

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