Risks on the frontline: ethnic minorities make up almost half of NHS medical staff. Photo: Ben Cawthra/Shutterstock

The Covid race riddle defies skin-deep simplicities

Even scientists are not beyond leaping to unfounded assumptions of innate racial difference. When it comes to Covid-19, the truth is much more complex
June 7, 2020

On 8th February, in the early days of the pandemic, a far-right American website posted the headline: “STILL No Non-Chinese Deaths from coronavirus.” It claimed that Chinese people were so biologically exceptional that a virus originating in Wuhan couldn’t possibly infect white people in Europe, even if it reached that far. This nugget of nonsense barely survived a month before being comprehensively debunked by the spread of Covid-19 through Italy and then western Europe. 

We may be united in our vulnerability, but as the crisis has rolled on, we have seen more and more strange speculation around human difference, part of it fed by the idea that the races are so distinct that some are innately more susceptible than others. 

Early on, one widely-circulated notion held that black people were naturally immune to the virus. That melted away as people of black and minority ethnic backgrounds began to die in disproportionate numbers in the United States and the UK: by May it was reported that African Americans constituted half of coronavirus deaths in Chicago, despite being less than a third of the population. Suddenly, the narrative switched to the possibility that black people were innately more vulnerable.

Rarely have racial myths risen and fallen so quickly. The habit of forming myths in the first place has deep roots in the scientific racism of 19th-century Europe, when slavery and colonialism were justified by the assumption that non-white people were biologically inferior: white slaveowners claimed that black slaves felt less pain than they did. But even today, many people—including scientists—are not beyond leaping to assumptions of racial difference.

In early April, prominent medical researchers told the Science Media Centre that genetic differences in race, a socially-defined category if ever there was one, might account for the emerging race gap among the casualties. In early May, this idea had become so popular that I found myself having to reassure a British Asian dentist who got in touch to ask if his genes might make it unsafe for him to return to work. Another unsubstantiated theory posited that Vitamin D deficiencies might be compromising the immune systems of those with darker skin, accounting for the gaps in virus deaths.

One of the problems with drawing snap conclusions during a pandemic is that data changes dramatically from month to month. In South Korea in February, for example, a 61-year-old woman inadvertently infected dozens after attending church services, wildly skewing the country’s infection rates. 

When it comes to minorities in the UK, the sharply disproportionate number of black and Asian deaths near the beginning of the crisis declined as the virus spread from London (a city in which white Britons are a minority) to the rest of the country (in which they are a large majority). By early June, four of the worst-affected regions were relatively deprived parts of the northeast, including Sunderland, which was 96 per cent white British at the last census. Public Health England data released on 30th April showed that, overall, the proportion of white deaths from Covid-19 was 82.9 per cent of the total death toll. But by the end of May this had climbed to 86.3 per cent. Clearly, we need to exercise care in analysing moving figures.

That said, the average age of white Britons is higher, and the age-adjusted mortality figures really do suggest that ethnic minorities have so far borne a disproportionate toll. But what then is the least-speculative reason as to why? 

Demographics are surely key. Ethnic minorities make up almost half of NHS medical staff. Frontline workers such as bus and delivery drivers and cleaning staff also come disproportionately from less well-off, minority backgrounds. Minorities more often live in poorer conditions, including overcrowded housing, which affects underlying health and patterns of infection. There are cultural factors, too, depending on which community you belong to, affecting patterns of social mixing and gathering. In the US, black Americans have waited until they are more severely ill before going to hospital, possibly because of the high costs of healthcare. And this is before considering racial discrimination in the healthcare system.

Coronavirus is laying bare society’s schisms—underlying disparities that make some individuals statistically more vulnerable. Whether the issue is poor living conditions that give rise to the sorts of underlying health problems that are associated with poor Covid-19 outcomes, or working in a frontline job without proper protective equipment, there are myriad factors here which certainly correlate with race—but they also overlap with many other demographic categories, including class, gender and poverty.

Much of this is tricky and uncomfortable territory, even for experts. There’s a desperation for crude, simple explanations for the gaps that are seen, rather than calm, measured analysis that accounts for all the complexities. The government itself got into a tangle on the day it was supposed to release a report about the excess deaths of minority Britons—there was a delay, reportedly because of  “worries” around “current global events,” possibly a euphemism for protests in the US over the death of George Floyd, and then later another row about evidence some said had been omitted. 

But any report was bound to be limited. When you begin to tally everything properly, you realise that it’s almost impossible to account for all the variables that might make some people statistically more vulnerable than others. The job of science here is to account for all external factors until we are left with what can only be biology. The problem is, no researcher has anywhere near the information needed for such exhaustive analysis. We are edging closer to a vaccine for Covid-19. Finding a cure for society’s complex webs of disadvantage will take longer.

Angela Saini’s book “Superior: the Return of Race Science” is published by 4th Estate