The COVID-19 pandemic has gone on for so long, it’s almost hard to remember the ambush phase of the epidemic in early 2020, nearly two years ago. At the time the ambush was centered in Wuhan, a few cities in Spain, a few cities in northern Italy – and metropolitan New York. At the time there were not only no vaccines, but also no masks, and hospital workers were forced to keep re-using the same masks and wearing garbage bags in place of hospital gowns.
And at the time, here in Metro New York, deaths were disproportionately concentrated among Blacks and Hispanics. I remember seeing a media image of all the NYPD employees who had been killed by the disease. It was almost all brown faces, something I know is not indicative of the composition of the NYPD as a whole. Why? Poverty? City of New York public employees are not poor. Lack of access to health care? City of New York public employees have the best health care of anyone, aside from $billionaires who can pay for it on their own. There was some discussion that those whose ancestors came from sunnier climes don’t make enough vitamin D when living farther north, and vitamin D deficiency made Covid-19 worse. Others believed the answer was obvious – it’s because White people are racists.
Now it is almost two years later, and I happened to click on the Demographics Trends tab to the left on the COVID-19 Data Tracker page on the Centers for Disease Control website.
Things have certainly changed. And it could be argued that Republican politicians and conservative influencers and media, deserve the credit – or the blame, depending on how you look at it.
As this chart shows for the U.S. shows, early in the pandemic, during the ambush phase when it was mostly here in New York, Blacks and Hispanics were much more likely to die than non-Hispanic Whites. Ever since May 2020, however, Native Americans have been more likely to die than other racial/ethnic groups, making this yet another Eurasian disease that has been disproportionately deadly for them.
What might be surprising is that starting in early September 2020, the death rate for non-Hispanic Whites has been higher than for either Blacks or Hispanics, almost all the time. This was a period when the disease was better understood and behavior – willingness to wear masks, socially distance, and get vaccinated – became more important than whatever one’s situation was pre-pandemic.
Might the White death rate catch up eventually? Actually, it already has.
For those COVID-19 victims for whom race/ethnicity has been recorded, non-Hispanic Whites account for 62.3% of the total who have died – despite accounting for just 60.1% of the population.
Blacks and American Indians also account for a higher share of COVID-19 deaths than their share of the total population, while Hispanics and Asians have been less likely to die.
And while the early days of the pandemic had many people fleeing cities for suburbs and rural areas, since early August 2020 those living in rural areas have been more likely to die of COVID-19 than those living in metropolitan counties.
The biggest difference in the risk of dying of COVID-19 hasn’t been race or, for that matter, sex, but rather age. Those over the age of 65 have had a substantial risk of dying of the disease, while those under the age of 40 have had almost none.
While Whites account for a higher share of COVID-19 deaths than their share of the total population, for any given age group the reverse is true. Take my age group, age 50 to 64. Whites account for 67.6% of the total population, but just 49.0% of the deaths. Meanwhile Hispanics account for just 13.3% of the population and 24.5% of the deaths.
If Whites account for a lower share of the COVID-19 deaths in every age group, how can they account for a higher share of the COVID-19 deaths overall? Because Whites are concentrated in those at-risk older age groups, compared with other races/ethnicities, while the other races/ethnicities are more prevalent among the young.
If the United States were an open minded, honest hearted country, everyone would have acknowledged that we faced terrible, lesser of two evils choices. Simply going about our business without the shutdowns, masks and other measures would have meant far more deaths, mostly among older Americans, a disproportionate share of whom are White. But as it is later born Americans have paid and will pay a terrible price to protect them, with regard to their economic well-being, mental health, and educational outcomes.
Because most of the older people dying from COVID-19 may have only lost a few weeks, or months, or years before they would have died anyway of something else, the years of life saved are limited. I believe that in the end the total years of life lost by those born later as a result of measures to contain COVID-19 — due to greater poverty, substance abuse, social isolation, educational disadvantage — will exceed the total years of life lost to the disease.
That is over and above the pre-existing reality that those born after 1957 have been dying earlier than prior generations as it was, due to cumulative economic, social and family disadvantages, to the point where total U.S. life expectancy fell three years in a row before COVID-19 even hit.
Nonetheless, that was a choice that had to be made. I was shocked to see, in comments on Wall Street Journal articles early in the pandemic, several people openly writing (or rather anonymously writing) cull the herd! The old and the sick are burden on the rest, they asserted, and the United States would be better off with fewer of them. Thus showing that at least a minority of those born after 1957 have a similar idea of generational equity as the majority of those born earlier. This attitude was and is immoral.
Nonetheless, the economic, social, educational and psychological harm done by shutdowns, social distancing, business closings, and remote learning are real. So the later-born have been sacrificed, once again, to benefit the generations that at every point in their lives, on average, have made themselves the top priority. This harsh tradeoff should have been honestly acknowledged from the start.
So let’s get back to racial justice.
In the mid-point of the pandemic, “liberals” and “progressives” asserted that White racism would mean that Whites got all the vaccines first, leaving “people of color” to face a continued risk of early death until much later. Since “people of color” had been more likely to die in the first year of the pandemic, according to this argument, Whites should wait and not get vaccinated until their death rate caught up, or supply was no longer an issue.
In fact, I did wait until there was plenty of supply. At first, vaccines were limited to those 65 and over, and those with pre-existing conditions. Then those over 60 – I was 59 ½ – and those with pre-existing conditions. I was told to get vaccinated, since I have high blood pressure and take pills. But to my mind since I take the pills, I don’t have high blood pressure, and that doesn’t count. I waited until the vaccines became widely available in drug stores, and everyone over age 50 was encouraged to get vaccinated.
Meanwhile, it seems that everyone over the age of 40 in greater Greater Park Slope had a pre-existing condition, often traveling far and wide to get the vaccine sooner that I did.
Yet there were people of another political persuasion that seem to have done all they could to help the White death rate catch up.
We know that many of those who consider themselves Republican, or Conservative, or anti-Government believe, or want to believe, that the entire COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax and vaccines are at best a money-grubbing fraud and at worst a danger. That the disease is no worse than the flu, or something that could be easily cured by easy and cheap home remedies. And the shutdowns, masks, social distancing and other rules are nothing more than the government using a mild disease as an excuse to take away people’s freedom, cause economic distress and prevent Donald Trump from being re-elected.
And we know that there were Republican politicians, and conservative media, that sought personal advantage by pandering to those views. Casting doubt on the severity of the disease, the need to wear masks or socially distance, and the value relative to the cost of vaccinations. Taking these stands got them publicity, and in some cases money and power.
By now we’ve all heard the stories of conservative media commentators and leaders dying of COVID-19 after refusing to get vaccinated, and in some cases recanting their prior position and urging their followers to get vaccinated as they were dying.
I don’t think much of their wisdom, but I admire their integrity. Once people had died after not getting vaccinated because of their influence, facing COVID-19 without the benefit of artificial immunity and assuming it wouldn’t be so bad, it would have been immoral for those influencers to sneak off and get vaccinated themselves. At that point they had to take the same risk.
There aren’t any vaccinated employees of Fox News are there? Someone in that organization getting vaccinated would be like a “progressive” coming up with a pre-existing condition and jumping the line ahead of poor Black and Latinos, back when vaccines were scarce.
In any event, by not jumping to the front of the line – indeed by refusing to even join the line – and influence others to do the same — it would appear that “conservatives” and “Republicans” have in fact acted in a way that increased “racial justice” after all. I just hope those dead conservatives don’t end up voting in the next election.
All this information is just sitting there on the CDC website, and yet almost all of this has remained among the unsaid. You don’t hear that Whites have been more likely to die than “people of color” overall, because of the influence of their media and political parties. You don’t hear that the later born will end up even worse off in the long run in the aggregate due to the measures that had to be taken to slow the pandemic. You don’t hear that rural people and Native Americans have been hit harder than urban dwellers and larger and more politically important minority groups.
You don’t even hear people ask why COVID-19 accounts for such a large share of the “excess deaths” in the U.S., and does that mean that all the expensive health care that other people didn’t get during the past two years wasn’t necessary after all.
Political and media types, and any others all over the world, saw a global tragedy and asked “how can I take advantage of this?” If it doesn’t fit someone’s narrative, you aren’t going to hear about it.