The COVID-19 pandemic “disproportionally affects the most vulnerable – especially our populations of African descent” and PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne today urged health authorities to “face this pressing challenge.”
In a press briefing, Etienne said, “We’re taking this issue as a priority and mainstreaming it into our programs,” focusing on better data for targeted prevention and care, greater participation in health programs that address communities of African descent, and improved access to health services.
Although data for the region is limited, death rates among black and mixed-race Brazilians are 1.5 times higher than among white citizens, and in Ecuador, Afro descendant males are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their female counterparts and they suffer 50% higher death rates from COVID than men in the country’s mestizo population, Etienne said. “In the U.S., the CDC reports that a black person is 2.6 times more likely to contract the virus and twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts,” she noted.
“This disproportional burden is not unique to COVID-19, and in fact it’s reflected across our health spectrum, from non-communicable diseases to maternal health outcomes. Especially for women of color, who typically have a harder time accessing the health services they need, the PAHO Director said.
Afro descendants represent about a fifth of all people in the Americas. They’re the dominant racial group in most Caribbean countries, over half of the Brazilian population, 13% of the U.S. population and about one in ten people in Ecuador and Panama, she noted.
“Systemic racism may pose barriers to appropriate care, result in mistrust in health providers and, ultimately, cause worse outcomes for black patients in many countries in our Region. COVID-19 has shed a harsh light on this reality – and against the backdrop of urgent calls for racial equality in the U.S., Brazil and other countries in our region – we urge health authorities to face this pressing challenge,” Etienne said.
Etienne noted that 1.6 million new cases and 22,000 deaths from COVID-19 were reported in our region in the past week. “In the month of November alone we had over six million new cases reported in the Americas. That is nearly a 30% increase from the numbers at the end of October,” she said.
“These continuing increases in cases of COVD-19 are why we must act swiftly, especially in places where the caseload has not been controlled. And while we’re inching closer to an effective COVID-19 vaccine, at this time, we must continue to rely on the public health measures that we can all take and that have helped to curb previous outbreaks; that is, relying on stay-at-home measures, practicing social distancing and wearing masks,” Etienne said.
“It’s also critical that Afro descendants in our region have the means to protect themselves from the pandemic, especially social protection and support systems that are required to adhere to public health measures,” she said. “They’re among the essential workers who power our sanitation systems, run our public transportation, care for our elderly, and tend to the sick. Despite their invaluable contributions to society, their jobs, often in the informal sector, make it harder for them to work from home, practice social distancing or take time off, so they’re more likely to get infected and, consequently, at higher risk of dying from the virus.”
Dr. Etienne noted that the Pan American Health Organization is observing its 118th birthday today, adding, “After nine months of living under the grip of COVID-19 in the Americas, the principles of our foundation remain central to PAHO’s daily work on the pandemic and will ultimately pave our way out of it. The pandemic is an urgent call to action on racial inequities, an opportunity for us to do better and make good on our promise of health for all.”