Black woman in mask

Why do minorities seem to be more vulnerable to COVID-19?

There’s no question that Black and Latinx American are suffering disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic. They are both dying and being hospitalized in greater numbers, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control. But why?

It is true that minorities have more underlying health conditions that lead to worsened outcomes of COVID-19. They also are more likely to work in front-line jobs that require more contact with the public. But there may be another factor at play: bias in the medical profession, research by Assistant Professor of Psychology Sylvia Perry suggests.

In a study, Perry and her colleagues surveyed 164 doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals in the U.S. and France, finding that American healthcare workers viewed White patients as more personally responsible for their health and more likely to adhere to doctor’s recommendations, relative to Black patients. In the same way, Perry explained, some have blamed racial minorities for contracting COVID-19.

“One of the narratives I have observed is that people suggest that racial minorities, Black and Latinx people in particular, might be dying or experiencing higher rates of COVID because they are engaging in risky and irresponsible behaviors,” Perry said.

The notion that minorities are already “more likely to have illnesses” such as asthma, heart conditions and diabetes reinforces the narrative that Black people do not take personal responsibility for their own health. And that can create a vicious circle, making minorities, in turn, fearful about how they will be perceived if they seek to be tested for COVID-19 or are diagnosed with the disease.

Perry and her team are looking for solutions to such bias. Some of the steps that seem to offer promise include increasing the number of interactions that healthcare workers have with racial minorities, increasing their contact with Black students in medical schools, and encouraging students preparing for healthcare careers to work with under-served communities. All these initiatives seemed to increase the positive attitudes that healthcare workers had toward Black people and their desire to provide care in under-served areas.

Says Perry:

“These kinds of experiences may help increase non-Black medical professionals’ empathy toward Black people because they may be more likely to see Black individuals as a part of their in-group, and less likely to rely on stereotypes when judging Black people.”