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We Don’t Fully Understand How Deadly the Coronavirus Has Been for Black Americans. That’s a Tragedy of Data

4 minute read

Black Americans are fighting against two distinct yet interlaced enemies this week: institutionalized racism and a pandemic that is disproportionately infecting and killing them.

The protests that have rocked cities from coast to coast over the past few days were, in the immediate sense, sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man. And police brutality has been the central theme of the demonstrations. But the protests are also being fueled by the fact that black communities have been devastated by the deadly pathogen working its way across America.

While black people make up only about 13% of the United States’ population according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they account for 22% of COVID-19 deaths so far, according to the COVID Tracking Project (white people, who make up 77% of the U.S. population, account for only 47% of deaths). The disparities are even more stark in some specific states and cities where black people make up the largest share of the population. In Mississippi, black people represent 38% of the population, but account for 51% of deaths. In Louisiana, that ratio is 32/53%. And in Washington, D.C., it’s a staggering 45/75%.

But the data on COVID-19 and race are incomplete, meaning we can’t even be sure how unequal the outbreak has truly been. “For one thing, there’s really no national-level system for gathering these data,” says TIME senior editor Elijah Wolfson. “It’s all based on state public health authorities, meaning there can be inconsistencies, but more importantly, there was no national mandate to gather these data or framework for doing so.”

Forty-six states and Washington, D.C. report race data in confirmed COVID-19 cases, while only 41 report race for virus-related deaths. But given the lack of adequate testing and the fact that many cases are going undiagnosed or misreported, the numbers are inaccurate—and likely underestimate just how stark the racial disparities have been. Moreover, some states aren’t reporting race data for coronavirus cases at all—including Louisiana, home to the U.S.’ third-largest black population. Still, with black people accounting for an outsized number of COVID-19 deaths in 34 states, it’s a signal that can’t be ignored.

There is no medical evidence that COVID-19 affects non-whites differently from whites on a biological level. Rather, it seems the virus is exploiting pre-existing disparities and biases within the American health care system—black Americans tend to have less access to health care than whites, for instance, and have been especially hurt by the coronavirus-triggered economic downturn, leaving many without a steady income or health insurance. To address those problems, we at least need good data to smartly allocate resources and increase access and accountability, Wolfson says.

Sadly, there is a chance that the protests could allow the virus to infiltrate even deeper through the very communities it has already most viciously ravaged. In the immediate term, this week’s protesters face the risk of arrest or violence at the hands of law enforcement or others. By congregating in large groups amid the pandemic, they are also increasing their risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. But for many black Americans and their allies, that risk is being outweighed by the costs of staying silent in the face of continued oppression.

This story was adapted from The Coronavirus Brief, TIME’s daily COVID-19 newsletter. You can click here to sign up for future updates in your inbox.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com