Months into the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., what have we learned about the effects of the virus on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) populations? The data is sobering and hopefully will spur more health experts and medical professionals to adjust their protection measures and treatments. Almost one-third of Black Americans know someone who died of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. And on top of that statistic, more than half of Black Americans know someone who has become ill or who died from the physical impacts of COVID-19. For some states that have significant Native American populations, the percentage of cases and deaths are over four and six times their Native American populations. But what are some reasons why we’re seeing these statistics, and what can be done?
Causes of Coronavirus Health Disparities and Outcomes
Digging deeper into the racial inequities with coronavirus, what possible explanations did we find for the differences in outcomes? A variety of socioeconomic factors are contributing to the stark differences in the impacts on BIPOC populations. Health and living situations that may include multiple pre-existing conditions like diabetes and heart and lung conditions, less access to quality health care, higher rates of obesity, increased rates of poverty, vitamin D deficiency, crowded living conditions, occupations that don’t have the option of working from home, stress, and the effects of structural racism.
Just as Black Americans are less likely to be prescribed medications for pain, could doctors be less likely to listen and respond to coronavirus symptoms in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color patients in the U.S. compared to their white counterparts? It’s possible. Also, it’s important to note that the data varies quite a bit state by state. In general, BIPOC populations on the East Coast tend to have much higher rates of transmission and deaths by novel coronavirus, and states on the West Coast strike more a balance between those populations and coronavirus cases and death rates. And states that have high concentrations of Latina and Latino farm workers showed higher rates of cases and deaths.
Were there any significant outliers to the data comparison between the West Coast and East Coast? When we examined the data, we found in general that American Indian and Alaska Native populations showed a higher percentage of cases and percentage of deaths in states that reported data for the group.
Vitamin D and Coronavirus
How does vitamin D play into health outcomes? Researchers believe that vitamin D’s benefits of providing anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects fight against the creation of cytokines. Cytokines are what can lead to the dangerous overproduction of cytokines called cytokine storm that can send the body into a situation of attacking itself. Fortunately, more is known about the virus now to provide therapeutic treatments that fight against cytokine storm. But if vitamin D can protect the body against cytokine production before they’re kicked into overdrive, that’s a better situation for the body when it comes into initial contact with the virus.
Another factor about vitamin D that may not be widely known is that it’s more difficult for those with darker skin to absorb vitamin D from the sun. A simple rule of thumb is that the darker your skin the more exposure to UVB rays that your body needs. Experimental evidence has also shown that older people become less efficient at producing vitamin D in their bodies compared to younger people. It’s a good practice as an older person to ask your doctor to test your vitamin D levels at annual checkups, especially now that vitamin D is thought to be a protector against COVID-19.
Are there other factors that diminish vitamin D absorption? It turns out that your physical environment matters as well. Those who live in northern areas of the country have more difficulty getting adequate vitamin D throughout the year due to less sunlight exposure. But carbon particulates from fossil fuels may actually help vitamin D absorption. The holes in the ozone layer filter less UVB rays, and so more vitamin D is absorbed by those who live in those areas.
Ways to Help Others
And what can we do to not only protect ourselves and our loved ones but others outside our social circles? Besides wearing masks when you’re around others, we can community-based and faith-based organizations to see if there are volunteer opportunities to connect with others via phone or video calls. There’s power in the human voice and spirit.
Many organizations are also accepting handmade masks and monetary donations to provide protective masks against the virus. Check out the tool on this websitethat allows you to filter by state to find a donation location.
Important elections are coming up as well. A national healthcare system would go a long way to providing adequate healthcare to those who need it most. Volunteer to help register people to vote. Even with coronavirus restrictions, you can help with educating others about registering to vote at outdoor locations like grocery stores or by delivering flyers to underrepresented neighborhoods.
A positive side is that as data continues to emerge and is shared, medical and health policy experts have new motivation to make adjustments to protection and treatment methods. Have Latina/Latino populations who primarily speak Spanish received health outreach in-person or from educational materials in Spanish? Months into the pandemic, there has been plenty of time to reach out in-person or by posting coronavirus protection guidelines in informational flyers. And outreach efforts are now showing an impact on reducing coronavirus transmission rates in Black and Latina/Latino communities. Some states have financial relief funds to help undocumented farm workers, so they can quarantine at home after they test positive for coronavirus.
But we can still do more to help others. We’re all in this pandemic together, and we can find ways to support those who need better access to and information about healthcare. One of the paths to access to equitable healthcare depends on us.