The COVID-19 pandemic has created the widest gap in life expectancy between Black and white Americans in more than 20 years.
Recent research found that the American life expectancy dropped by a full year in the first half of 2020, largely due to COVID-19. This statistic alone is a grim measure of the pandemic’s toll across the country. However, when you look at the breakdown by race and ethnicity, it becomes even more clear who is bearing the brunt of the crisis. Black men and women and Hispanic men have suffered the largest declines in life expectancy, with Black men’s life expectancy dropping a full three years while already having lower life expectancy rates than most racial groups.
Although Black, Latino, and Indigenous adults and children make up a disproportionate amount of COVID-19 cases and deaths, their communities are being left behind in the early vaccine rollouts to eligible populations.
Widespread access to vaccines is critical to curbing the spread of COVID-19, keeping families safe, and ensuring children can return to some normalcy in school and child care settings. But access must be equitable and targeted towards communities that are suffering most amid the pandemic.
However, nationwide, only five percent of COVID vaccines have gone to Black Americans and only 11 percent have gone to Latino Americans, according to available data. Similar inequities have been reported in cities and states across the country. In Washington, DC, predominantly Black neighborhoods have the highest COVID-19 death rates but older residents in predominantly Black neighborhoods have vaccination rates of only seven to nine percent—compared with 25 percent among older residents in wealthier, whiter wards. Similarly, in New York City, vaccination rates in wealthier and often whiter neighborhoods are outpacing those of less well-off neighborhoods.
We know structural and medical racism has caused distrust and vaccine hesitancy among Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities. Persistent violence and mistreatment in health care has historically led to increased fears about vaccine safety for both adults and children alike—we’ve begun to see this early on in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and expect to see similar challenges when a safe and effective vaccine becomes available for pediatric use, hopefully later this year. However, vaccine hesitancy should not, as Anne Sosin, program director at the Dartmouth Center for Global Health Equity contends, “deflect responsibility for equitable distribution on the front end.” There are barriers to access that disproportionately affect communities of color and must be addressed including not having health insurance, lack of information about accessing vaccines at no cost, previous experiences of discrimination in health care, and logistical challenges.
Our leaders must ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and work to address the longstanding racism that has caused this crisis.
The distribution of COVID-19 vaccines need to be targeted towards Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities who are being harmed most by the pandemic. This includes increased vaccine supply; centering racial equity in distribution plans; equitable allocation within priority groups; targeted outreach; systems that are easier to navigate; and data collection on race and ethnicity. Free and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is essential to slowing the harm of the pandemic and keeping families of color safe.
Though children are only recently being included in vaccine trials and will not be eligible for vaccinations until a vaccine has been proven safe and effective for pediatric use, it is essential our leaders address racial disparities in access to vaccines for adults to ensure children, families, and communities of color are protected from COVID-19 and can return to normalcy as soon as possible.