Rising disparities in how COVID-19 is affecting communities, and the major disproportionate impact it is having on racial and ethnic minorities, including people of African descent, have exposed alarming inequalities within our societies, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said. She noted that similar inequalities are also fuelling the widespread protests affecting hundreds of cities across the United States.
“The data tells us of a devastating impact from COVID-19 on people of African descent, as well as ethnic minorities in some countries, including Brazil, France, the United Kingdom and the United States,” Bachelet said. “In many other places, we expect similar patterns are occurring, but we are unable to say for sure given that data by race and ethnicity is simply not being collected or reported,” she said.
In Brazil’s Sao Paulo state, people of colour are 62% more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. In France’s Seine Saint-Denis department where many minorities live, higher excess mortality has also been reported.
In the United States, the COVID-19 death rate for African Americans is reported to be more than double that of other racial groups. Similarly, government data for England and Wales shows a death rate for black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people that is nearly double that of white people, even when class and some health factors are taken into account.
“The appalling impact of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minorities is much discussed, but what is less clear is how much is being done to address it,” Bachelet said. “Urgent steps need to be taken by States, such as prioritising health monitoring and testing, increasing access to healthcare, and providing targeted information for these communities.”
These disparities likely result from multiple factors relating to marginalisation, discrimination, and access to health, although more information is needed to fully understand and address the situation. Economic inequality, overcrowded housing, environmental risks, limited availability of healthcare and bias in provision of care may all play a part. People from racial and ethnic minorities are also found in higher numbers in some jobs that carry an increased risk, including in the transport, health and cleaning sectors.
“States need not only to focus on the current impact of these disparities on groups and communities facing racial discrimination but also on their root causes,” Bachelet said. “This virus is exposing endemic inequalities that have too long been ignored. In the United States, protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd are highlighting not only police violence against people of colour, but also inequalities in health, education, employment and endemic racial discrimination.
“These problems are mirrored to a greater or lesser degree in many other countries, where people of African descent and other racial minorities are subjected to entrenched forms of discrimination,” she added. “It is a tragedy that it took COVID-19 to expose what should have been obvious – that unequal access to healthcare, overcrowded housing and pervasive discrimination make our societies less stable, secure and prosperous.”
Moving forward requires urgent action by governments to prioritise the collection of disaggregated data, according to Bachelet. A recent study by the Lancet of papers and national surveillance reports on COVID-19 found that only 7% contained data disaggregated by ethnicity.
“Collection, disaggregation and analysis of data by ethnicity or race, as well as gender, are essential to identify and address inequalities and structural discrimination that contributes to poor health outcomes, including for COVID-19,” noted Bachelet.
“Serious and sustained consultation with ethnic and racial minorities on ways forward in the COVID-19 response is also of critical importance,” she said.
“The fight against this pandemic cannot be won if Governments refuse to acknowledge the blatant inequalities that the virus is bringing to the fore,” the High Commissioner said. “Ultimately, efforts to tackle COVID-19 and to begin the recovery process will only be successful if everyone’s rights to life and health are protected, without discrimination.
“The International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) also provides an important framework and an opportunity to address historical injustices that have undeniably contributed to the present day racial disparities”, said Bachelet, who is also the UN Coordinator of the International Decade.