In the eyes of many in the media, high COVID-19 numbers in minority and immigrant communities are a product of America’s systemic racism and an economic regime that privileges profits over the well-being of nonwhite people. But those who see free enterprise as the cause of differing outcomes need to consider this inconvenient truth: COVID-19 racial disparities were the rule everywhere in the Western world.
That is not to discount the great advantages the wealthy have had in social distancing, sometimes measured not in feet but in miles. In New York City, for instance, the largely white residents of the luxury zip codes of Manhattan fled to their summer homes in the Hamptons or Westport.
Meanwhile, the black and immigrant residents of the poorer neighborhoods of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx rode the subway to their jobs stocking shelves at Whole Foods, mopping hospital floors, or delivering FedEx packages to Zoom-conferencing, homebound shoppers before returning home to coronavirus-haunted neighborhoods.
It’s no surprise, then, that Manhattan’s richer neighborhoods had the lowest per-capita rates of infection in New York City, while gritty outer-borough areas suffered the highest rate. Neither is it a surprise that the shelf-stockers, floor-moppers, and delivery drivers turned out to be disproportionately nonwhite.
Such disparities were the rule in Michigan, too, where black people make up 15% of the overall population but 31% of the cases — and 41% of the deaths. As of early May, black Americans were half of Chicago’s COVID-19 deaths while making up only 30% of the population. Nationally, black Americans died of the virus at twice the rate predicted by their portion of the population. In parts of the country with fewer blacks, Latinos generally took first place among the victims. In Illinois, Latinos make up 17% of the population but account for 43% of cases.
What about the trends in other countries? As it turns out, the pandemic exposed inequality in wealthy countries that run the gamut from cowboy capitalist to socialist-adjacent. Sometimes, the inequalities looked racial, and sometimes they didn’t. Some of those countries have welcomed immigrants, giving them all the expansive services of their welfare states; sometimes, they’ve been more restrictive. Yet in each, the disadvantaged suffered more than the middle class and well-to-do. COVID-19 didn’t expose America’s “class savagery” so much as reveal inequality as a stubborn fact of human social arrangements that even the most generous welfare state cannot resolve.
In the United Kingdom, for example, COVID-19 death rates were almost 6 times higher for black Africans than for whites, 4 times higher for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, 2.6 times higher for Indians, and 3.7 times higher for Caribbean blacks. Post-colonialists might say, “Of course, England is hostile to minorities.” The problem with that explanation is that these discrepancies extend to their most admired nations, too.
In Finland’s capital city of Helsinki, for example, Somalis accounted for 17% of positive cases for the disease — 10 times their share of the city’s population, according to Reuters. In Norway, too, Somalian refugees had infection rates more than 10 times the national average.
Sweden’s racial COVID-19 gap was a silent rebuttal to the country’s proudly egalitarian self-image. As in France, the foreign-born in Sweden tend to live in segregated suburbs where incomes are half those of wealthier areas. One of the hardest-hit, the Rinkeby-Kista district in the north of Stockholm, is home to Somalis, Iraqis, Syrians, and Turks. It had 238 confirmed cases as of April 6 — the equivalent of 47 cases per 10,000 residents, more than 3 times higher than the regional average of 13 cases per 10,000.
So why the apparent COVID-19 racial animus in countries with no history of Jim Crow or redlining, countries committed to multiculturalism and generous safety nets? Experts in every country, including the United States, point to the same factors. First: density. The biggest outbreaks have all been in metro areas with populations over 10 million: Wuhan, Milan, Madrid, Paris, London, and New York. Minorities are more likely to live in urban areas. Overall, urban counties in the U.S. are 54% nonwhite.
But, as was the case in New York City and across the U.S., the strongest predictor of COVID-19 rates is the average number of people living together. Crowded homes help explain why Navajo Indians, who live on isolated reservations, had some of the nation’s most alarming per-capita COVID-19 numbers. As the Wall Street Journal reported in June, some 18% of Navajo homes have five or more people, and 14% are classified as crowded, among the highest rates nationwide. The problem is not population density but the density of living quarters.
As it happens, minorities in Europe, as in the U.S., more commonly live in multigenerational households. In the U.K., whether for economic or cultural reasons, extended families are far more common among minority populations. In the 2019 U.K. Census, only 2% of whites described their household type as “other, with dependent children,” compared with 11% of Asians and 7% of blacks. In France, Arab and African households tend to include extended family members.
As in the U.S., low-skilled service jobs in Canada and most of Europe are disproportionately held by new immigrants and minorities. In Canada, up to a third of the hard-hit “key workers” — cleaners, delivery people, and kitchen help — are foreign-born. One study from Ryerson University and the Canadian Research Network for Caring in the Community found that 42% of personal-care workers in Ontario identified as a “visible minority,” close to double their share of Canada’s population. In Europe, about 20% of key workers in Italy, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, and Austria are non-EU immigrants.
Saying that COVID-19 has illuminated inequalities in places where few expected to see them is not to deny that inequality is higher in the U.S. than in other comparably rich countries. Yet the difficult truth is that until the robots take over, advanced-economy countries will still need workers to pick the grapes, clean airport bathrooms, empty nursing home bedpans, and drive trucks. We must do all we can to protect these “essential workers,” which they certainly are. Wherever they are from and whatever their color, these workers deserve to be treated decently, to earn enough to support their families, and to be a part of a common life. But to say that America’s uniquely virulent form of racism is why they are disproportionately victims of COVID-19 is not an accurate analysis of the facts.
Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor at City Journal. This piece is adapted from City Journal’s NYC Reborn series.