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Black people found to be twice as likely to catch coronavirus as their white counterparts

Alexandra Thompson
·4-min read
Young Ethiopian woman wearing a face mask, standing outdoors, looking at the camera.
Early in the outbreak, statistics flagged people of a non-white ethnicity are more likely to become seriously ill with the coronavirus and die. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Black people are twice as likely to catch the coronavirus as their white counterparts, research suggests.

Early in the outbreak, statistics flagged people of a non-white ethnicity are significantly more likely to develop serious complications and die with the infection.

In the largest investigation to date, scientists from the universities of Leicester and Nottingham looked at more than 18 million people who took part in 50 studies in the UK and US.

Read more: The obstacles that could hold back Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine

Results suggest Black people have double the risk of infection, while those of an Asian ethnicity are 1.5 times more likely to catch the coronavirus than their white counterparts. The scientists did not specify where in Asia the participants were from.

Although unclear exactly why this may occur, it has been suggested people of a non-white ethnicity are more likely to be exposed to the virus if they have a front-line job.

African American woman wearing a protective mask while sitting in a bus and using a mobile phone
It has been suggested Black people may be more likely to have jobs that cannot be carried out from home, forcing some to commute amid the pandemic. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

The review is published in The Lancet journal EClinical Medicine, however, the research papers that made up the investigation included both preliminary results and peer-reviewed studies.

“Our findings suggest the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] on Black and Asian communities is mainly attributable to increased risk of infection in these communities,” said study author Dr Manish Pareek, from the University of Leicester.

“Many explanations exist as to why there may be an elevated level of COVID-19 infection in ethnic minority groups.

“[These include] the greater likelihood of living in larger household sizes comprised of multiple generations; having lower socioeconomic status, which may increase the likelihood of living in overcrowded households; and being employed in frontline roles where working from home is not an option.”

Read more: Two-thirds of severe coronavirus patients endure long COVID for seven weeks

The results also suggest people of an Asian ethnicity who catch the coronavirus are more likely to be admitted to intensive care and die.

The scientists stressed, however, this apparent heightened death risk was of “borderline statistical significance”, while there was “strong evidence” suggesting Black and Asian people are more likely to catch the infection in the first place.

“The clear evidence of increased risk of infection amongst ethnic minority groups is of urgent public health importance,” said lead author Dr Shirley Sze, from the University of Leicester.

“We must work to minimise exposure to the virus in these at-risk groups by facilitating their timely access to healthcare resources, and target the social and structural disparities that contribute to health inequalities.”

The scientists are calling for further research into how a person’s ethnicity influences their risk of coronavirus complications and death.

Watch: Can you catch coronavirus twice?

This is not the first time concerns like these have been raised.

A Public Health England report released in June found that among confirmed coronavirus cases, non-white people were between 10% and 50% more likely to die.

In October, the think tanks Runnymede Trust and Institute for Public Policy Research reported 58,000 more people would have died during the first coronavirus wave in England and Wales alone if white people faced the same infection risk as their Black counterparts.

An explanation as to why non-white people are more at risk has been somewhat muddled.

Read more: Coronavirus survivors twice as likely to develop psychiatric disorder as those who overcome flu

The think-tank team blamed “a society that is riddled with structural inequalities”.

The Nottingham and Leicester scientists agreed this may play a role, adding: “Racism and structural discrimination may contribute to an increased risk of worse clinical outcomes within ethnic minority communities.

“Within a healthcare context, this contributes to inequities in the delivery of care, barriers to accessing care, loss of trust and psychosocial stressors.

“There is evidence to suggest ethnic minorities and migrant groups have been less likely to implement public health measures, be tested, or seek care when experiencing symptoms due to such barriers and inequities in the availability and accessibility of care, underscoring critical healthcare disparities.”

It has also been suggested a non-white person may be more likely to be obese or have type 2 diabetes, possibly undiagnosed, raising their risk of coronavirus complications.

In October, data from the Office for National Statistics suggested the higher risk of death among non-white patients is down to where they live and their occupation, not their overall health.

Non-white individuals may be more likely to have front-line jobs – like care home staff, bus drivers or supermarket employees – raising the risk they will be exposed to the virus.

They may also live in crowded, multi-generational households, where social distancing is almost impossible.

Watch: What is long COVID?