America’s history of racism was a preexisting condition for COVID-19

A Louisiana pastor prays as his parishioners die, first from cancer and now from COVID-19. An Indigenous community in New Mexico lacks adequate health care as the death toll mounts. A sick hospital worker in New Jersey frets about infecting others in her heavily populated neighborhood.



a group of people standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Parishioners stand in Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Reserve, LA, during a sermon by Rev. Fr. Christopher Chike Amadi.


© Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
Parishioners stand in Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Reserve, LA, during a sermon by Rev. Fr. Christopher Chike Amadi.

As the country cries out for a vaccine and a return to normal, lost in the policy debates is the reality that COVID-19 kills far more people of color than white Americans. This isn’t a matter of coincidence, poor choices or bad luck — it’s by design. 

A team of USA TODAY reporters explored how the policies of the past and present have made Black, Asian, Hispanic and Indigenous Americans prime targets for COVID-19. They found:

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  • America’s education and economic systems are still unequal, disproportionately leaving people of color out of higher-wage jobs. When COVID-19 struck, more people of color were serving as essential workers directly in the path of the virus.

Put simply, America’s history of racism was itself a preexisting condition.

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Of the 10 U.S. counties with the highest death rates from COVID-19, seven have populations where people of color make up the majority, according to data compiled by USA TODAY. Of the top 50 counties with the highest death rates, 31 are populated mostly by people of color. 

“COVID-19 has brought out into the open, with painful clarity, these divisions in our society that have been there for a long time but, for one reason or another, people were able to overlook them,” said Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College.

With nearly 1,000 people a day dying from the virus and scientists scrambling to grasp exactly how the virus spreads and kills, federal and state data has not provided enough demographic detail to show the full impact on communities of color. The race and ethnicity of people who contract the virus is known in 52% of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

But study after study has shown clear patterns in whom the virus kills.

How systemic racism led to COVID-19’s rapid spread among people of color

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Black people are more than twice as likely to die from the virus than white people, and Hispanics and Native Americans are 1.5 times more likely to die, according to The COVID Tracking Project. 

“You can’t change the fact that America is so segregated and that people of color tend to live in communities where the environmental conditions are worse, and that can increase your risk of heart disease or lung disease and diabetes,” said Richard Besser, former acting director of the CDC and president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest

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