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COVID-19 underscores 'pandemic scale' of racial inequality, analysis finds

Researchers say that racial disparities seen in the number of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic reveal a larger problem in health care overall. Photo by Администрация Волгоградской области/Wikimedia
Researchers say that racial disparities seen in the number of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic reveal a larger problem in health care overall. Photo by Администрация Волгоградской области/Wikimedia

Aug. 24 (UPI) -- COVID-19 would need to kill an additional 1 million White Americans for their average life expectancy to fall to levels seen by Black Americans during non-pandemic years, an analysis published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found.

The results reveal the scope of "another U.S. catastrophe" -- the "pandemic-scale problem" of racial inequality, report author Elizabeth Wrigley-Field told UPI.

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"My research shows that Blacks experience a scale of extra death every year that is more than the excess deaths that Whites are likely to experience from COVID-19," said Wrigley-Field, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.

"This gives us a metric for understanding just how severe racial inequality is, and it is as though the Black population were going through Whites' experience during the coronavirus pandemic, except it's happening every single year," she said.

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Nearly 180,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 as of Monday, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University. Black Americans account for roughly one in four of these deaths, even though they constitute just 13% of the U.S. population, findings from the APM Research Lab suggest.

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For her analysis, Wrigley-Field reviewed data on American deaths between 2006 and 2017.

Based on her findings, she estimates that 400,000 to 420,000 additional White deaths due to COVID-19 in 2020 would be required for White death rates to rise to the level of Black death rates in 2014, the year with that Black Americans recorded their lowest-ever death rate.

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That figure is roughly five times the current confirmed COVID-19 mortality levels among White Americans, she said.

Similarly, 700,000 to 1 million additional White Americans would need to die in 2020 from COVID-19 or other causes for White Americans' average life expectancy to drop to the highest ever average life expectancy for Black Americans -- 76 years -- which also was recorded in 2014.

This would represent a 31% to 46% increase in deaths among White Americans compared to figures for recent years, Wrigley-Field said.

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The average life expectancy for White Americans is about 80 years. It has been higher than it has been for Black Americans every year since 1989. After adjusting for age, the best recorded death rates and life expectancy for Black Americans were similar to levels for White Americans 20 or 30 years ago, she said.

The findings place the toll of racial inequality into perspective, Wrigley-Field said.

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"These results tell us more about racial inequality during 'normal' times than about disparities during the pandemic," she told UPI. "However, racial inequality is likely to be even larger this year than in other years [because of the pandemic]."

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