The coronavirus pandemic didn’t create the health disparities among Americans, but it has exposed once again how stark the problem is. Black and Latino patients are two to three times as likely as white patients to be diagnosed with COVID-19, and more than four times as likely to be hospitalized for it. Black patients are more than twice as likely to die from the virus. They also die from it at younger ages. COVID-19 has exacerbated long-standing trends: Black and Latino Americans have lower rates of insurance coverage, a higher prevalence of chronic diseases, worse health outcomes, and a lower life expectancy. People in the health-care world sometimes speak of these patterns as if they are inevitable facts of life—something the industry is powerless to change. More doctors and hospitals need to acknowledge and address how the U.S. health-care system is rife with structural racism. For decades, American medicine has discriminated against people of color.
The health-care system, by one estimate, is responsible for only about 10 to 15 percent of preventable mortality in the United States. Socioeconomic factors, such as housing, food, and education, have a greater overall impact. Policies that effectively address these factors will be required to significantly reduce disparities in health outcomes for Black and Latino people. Nevertheless, many choices that health-care professionals commonly make—such as not accepting Medicaid patients, having fewer staff members at facilities in minority neighborhoods, and blaming patients for not taking their medicine and for poor overall outcomes—perpetuate disparities and even amplify them.