Race, COVID and the Washington Post

Image source: Washington Post

by James A. Bacon

Ever alert to signs of racism everywhere, the Washington Post published this morning a lengthy article about COVID-19 and race. “Racial, ethnic minorities reel from higher covid-19 death rates,” proclaims the headline. “A Post analysis shows that communities of color continue to die from the coronavirus at much higher rates than Whites.”

The Post starts by taking note of the racial disparities in death rates:

As another wave of infections sweeps across the country this fall, losses among racial and ethnic minorities remain disproportionately large. Black Americans were 37 percent more likely to die than Whites, after controlling for age, sex and mortality rates over time. Asians were 53 percent more likely to die; Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, 26 percent more likely to die; Hispanics, 16 percent more likely to die.

The Post then proceeds to explore variety of explanations for the discrepancy, all of which fall under the rubric of “structural racism.” States the Post: “Minorities face a long history of unequal access to medical care — which may have impacted treatment decisions and outcomes.” For example, noting that African-American patients were more likely than whites to receive “an older, less-expensive and riskier blood thinner linked to higher morality from covid-19,” the Post quotes a scientist as “wondering” whether some doctors chose the older, more established product for minority patients because the newer drugs were overwhelmingly tested on whites.
Then the authors treat the conjecture as reality, further quoting the scientist, Venky Soundararajan, as saying, “It’s some of the same reasons people are protesting in the streets — police brutality, job discrimination, environmental justice. The coronavius shows how much racism there is in health as well.”

Perhaps there is something to the structural racism arguments My hunch is that most of the disparities can be attributed to socioeconomic status, a factor that the Post “analysis” totally ignores. But I’m not ruling a priori the possibility that some doctors and institutional structures are racist. That’s an empirical question worth pursuing. Here’s what I object to: The Post is ruling out a priori any other explanation.

In April U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged fellow African Americans to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs to lower their risk from the virus. The Post article devoted one sentence to Adams’ words of caution, then quoted Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., to debunk him. “Waters,” states the article, ” described the comments as ‘a backhanded attack on African Americans and communities of color.'” Adams subsequently apologized, the Post noted.

With that one paragraph, the Post excluded the interpretation of the data that might suggest that differences in personal behavior might influence differences in the spread of, early detection of, and death from the virus. The analytical fix was in. The authors would accept only explanations that were variation on the structural racism theme.

But the Post’s own data calls out for a different explanation. Look at the chart above, which compares the death rates for white and black men aged 60 to 69.  The racial disparity in death rates was greatest in the early phase of the epidemic, February to March, and then declined sharply. In part the falling death rate for older black men (which tracked the trend for black women and younger blacks) reflected the society-wide decline in death rates for all racial categories as hospitals and doctors got better at treating the disease. But the gap narrowed as well.

What happened in the March/April tune frame that might account for the dramatic drop in the black death rate? Here are some clues.

On March 17, the actor Idris Elba went public with the fact that he had been infected by the virus. He used the occasion to dispel the “myth” that the virus didn’t affect black people. In a Twitter video, he said, “My people, black people, black people: Please, please understand that coronavirus …. you can get it, all right? There are so many stupid, ridiculous conspiracy theories about black people not being able to get it. That’s dump, stupid. … Stop sending out these stupid What’s App messages about black people not getting it. … Just know you have to be as vigilant as every other race.”

On April 7 Dr. Oluwatoyin, a Cook County infectious disease expert, held a press conference that was picked up by Club Chicago, an Internet publication. The rumor that black people are immune to COVID-19 was harmful, he said. “That kind of misinformation allows some of the infection to lay ground in the community.”

Appearing on CNN on April 10, basketball legend Magic Johnson compared COVID-19 to the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. HIV, he said, “was considered a white, gay man’s disease. People were wrong. Blacks thought that they couldn’t get HIV and AIDS. It’s the same thing as coronavirus. We were all wrong and the numbers switched from a white gay man’s disease to a minority disease, which it is today. The same thing here, misinformation went out in our community and said, oh, Blacks can’t get coronavirus and everybody’s been wrong about that, whoever’s been saying that in the black community. So that’s why we see these numbers so high. … We have to do a better job as African Americans to follow social distancing [and] stay at home.”

As established media began picking up the message, behaviors changed — reinforced no doubt by the real lived experience of African-Americans contracting the disease and heading to the hospital in large numbers. As blacks came to understand that they were as vulnerable to the epidemic as anyone, they took masking and social-distancing as seriously, if not more so, than other racial/ethnic groups. Disparities with whites shrank dramatically. 

But you will read none of this in the Washington Post. The Post’s narrative attributes all health disparities to structural racism: either in the way healthcare is delivered or to underlying issues such as co-morbidities (obesity, diabetes, hypertension, etc.) that can be attributed indirectly to structural racism. Whether the refusal to consider other interpretations represents an unconscious paradigm from which Post writers and editors cannot break free or a conscious effort to suppress other points of view, I cannot say.

Either way, the intellectual bias is clear. The Post cherry picks the experts and facts that fit the narrative, dismisses experts and facts that don’t. Readers be warned: Never, ever, ever, accept anything the Post writes at face value. When writing about race in America, the Post always has an agenda. Always look for missing perspectives and missing context. Always dig deeper. 

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28 responses to “Race, COVID and the Washington Post

  1. A nice analysis.

    On both Right and Left, critical thinking has fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason…. with a few exceptions, of which this blog is one.

    And this is happening at just the wrong time, when we are facing a complex of challenges where we need cold-blooded logical reasoning, and political leaders who are not afraid to tell the truth to the people.

  2. My recent reporting shows generally what the Post reported.

  3. The Post, continuing its path towards becoming a combination of Der Stürmer and Pravda on a permanent basis, once again provides a superficial analysis. It adjusts for only “age, sex and mortality rates over time.” Does anyone think that medical research would focus and focused on just those factors? What about weight, eating habits, exercise, underlying conditions, behavior, etc.?

    We see “journalists” regularly insisting that the feds and states should focus on science, yet our local ones skip that part.

    The biggest mistake Jeff Bezos ever made will clearly be not shutting down the Post after buying it.

  4. Steve. Your point?

    • Covered.

    • Nancy and I had this discussion months ago. There is nothing new in any of this! Boring….Peter, if the disease has a disparate impact on African-Americans, how come there is (still!) so little disease in Africa itself? Clearly race itself (to the extent there even is any relevant biological variation) is not the factor. How come European countries with far smaller Black populations have death rates comparable or worse than the U.S.?

  5. So what happens if the “case” count keeps rising and the death and hospitalization rates decline? How will the “data” and “Science” be interpreted?

  6. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/coronavirus/country/united-states/

    Another hmmm… Ranked by deaths per capita (sort that spreadsheet), only 12 states are doing better than Virginia now (plus Puerto Rico). We keep going down the list. Last time I looked it was about 15….

  7. OK, you all are gonna get tired of me beating the same drum…
    If The Gov does nothing, I might have to compliment him. It’s a virus. Us old people (we know who we are) need to be careful.
    Meanwhile, I heard President Ryan sent out some self-congratulatory communication about 1,300 student cases and NO (as in none) hospitalizations…
    So you are punishing 2 years of students in high school and college…why?
    And why is there NO ONE at UVA advocating opening up? No medical professionals, no economists, no historians, nobody with an alternative view?

  8. Well gee, steve. Maybe because this particular disease tends to hit more advanced areas with more global traffic. Ebola did not strike here. Get it?

  9. The Post acknowledges in their Methodology insert that “The limitation of the study was missing data on some of the 5.8 million covid-19 patients collected by local health departments and assembled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” They address that by excluding cases missing data from every model.

    Looking at Virginia’s reports, as of November 21, 41,291 cases were missing racial or ethnic data. That’s 19% of the total cases and more than the cases identified as Black. Enough to skew any analysis.

    The proportions for deaths in Virginia comes a lot closer to population distribution, and the Hispanic number is less than the population proportion. Virginia does not offer a public dataset by age and race/ethnic identification, so it’s impossible to tell if the slightly higher Black death rate is connected to nursing home deaths or younger groups.

    As of 11/21 VDH Cases
    Asian/Pacific Islander……….6912 3.2%
    Black……………………………..40768 18.7%
    Latino……………………………..44615 20.5%
    Native American……………….289 0.1%
    Other……………………………….5320 2.4%
    Two or more………………………2150 1.0%
    White………………………………..76451 35.1%
    Unknown…………………………….41291 19.0%
    Total…………………………………..217,796 100.0%

    As of 11/21 VDH Deaths
    Asian/Pacific Islander…… 167 …. 4.2%
    Black…………………………… 1009 …. 25.6%
    Latino…………………………. 347 ….. 8.8%
    Native American…………….. 7 …. 0.2%
    Other…………………………… 51 … 1.3%
    Two or more…………………. 15 …. 0.4%
    White…………………………2231 …. 56.7%
    Unknown…………………….. 111 …. 2.8%
    Total…………………………. 3,938 … 100.0%

    We can’t compare hospitalizations because VDH only reports those hospitalized at the time the case is first reported, not those hospitalized later. This difference means VDH reported 14,017 hospitalizations compared to 24,560 from Virginia Health and Hospital Association. Again, enough to skew any analysis.

  10. Thank you Carol, for the truth as best one can discern from skewed official numbers.

    Thank you Publius for asking a profound question:

    “So you are punishing 2 years of students in high school and college…why?

    And why is there NO ONE at UVA advocating opening up? No medical professionals, no economists, no historians, nobody with an alternative view?”

    What is answer. Are these experts afraid? Do they want this “crisis” to stop? Or is there too much money yet to be made?” Or will you be cancelled out, exiled from your profession and livelihood, if you dare go against the some official leftist party line? Something very wrong is going among our elites. They are marching in lockstep as if afraid. As if seemingly America was already China under Communist Party rule, or something ominously growing quickly akin to it.

  11. Researchers have identified ACE2 as the mechanism used by SARS-COV2 to make entry into the cell. ACE2 is present in greater amounts for those with diabetes, hypertension, heart and lung disease, hence ACE2 inhibitors are prescribed.

    Some snippets from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41392-020-00374-6 describing a novel treatment… basically, flood your body with a free ACE2 to bind up the virus while your immune system catches up.

    ACE2 is expressed in several human organs at varying levels. It is highly expressed in the lungs (on the surface of type II alveolar epithelial cells), heart (on myocardial cells, coronary vascular endothelial cells, and vascular smooth muscle), kidney (on proximal tubule cells), and small intestine (on the enterocytes).

    While membrane-bound ACE2 may mediate cell entry of SARS-CoV-2, a genetically modified soluble form of ACE2, called hrsACE2, may decrease cell entry of SARS-CoV-2 competing for membrane-bound ACE2. APN001 is a hrsACE2 designed by Apeiron Biologics to imitate the human enzyme ACE2. As such, it may decrease cell entry of SARS-CoV-2 to minimize lung injury, and multiple organ dysfunction (Fig. 1). Experimental support for this theoretical idea has come from in vitro studies showing that hrsACE2 reduces viral growth of SARS-CoV-2 by a factor of 1000–5000 in cell-culture, engineered human blood vessels and kidney organoids.4 To date, hrsACE2 has been documented to be safe and tolerable in 89 healthy volunteers in phase-I studies and patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome in phase-II clinical studies.
    Cool. But this explains why autopies have found that Covid damages virtually every organ in the body. Too bad they’re privately held. Nice anti-cancer pipeline for a small bio.

    • What autopsies can’t show is continued healing over time. “At a recent European Respiratory Society meeting, doctors presented early results of a few small studies that offered a glimmer of hope, indicating that in at least some cases, patients’ lungs show signs of recovery especially with intensive aftercare and exercise.” The same NYTarticle from October 18 describes cases where patients who had severe COVID infections needed physical therapy and breathing exercises to improve breathing function. They cited a physiopathogist at Dieulefit Santé on the clinic’s rehabilitation study and doctors at the University Clinic of Internal Medicine in Innsbruck, Austria, who “observed similar improvements in their 86 patients, who were also in the hard-hit category and endured long hospital and I.C.U. stays.”
      ““There are some signs of reversible damage,” said Dr. Thomas Sonnweber, who conducted the study with his colleagues Dr. Judith Löffler-Ragg and Dr. Ivan Tancevski. At the time the patients were discharged from the hospital, 88 percent had lung damage, but 12 weeks later, only 56 percent did.”

      So it seems it’s too early to tell how much of the vascular damage is permanent. Even when it is, the body has compensatory abilities according to Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, an assistant professor who specializes in pulmonary and critical care at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. He’s quoted on the mechanisms by which the lungs rebuild themselves, and said When that’s not possible, scars will form and some may become permanent, but that serves a purpose too. The lungs know that the scarred spot can’t perform oxygen exchange, so they won’t send blood there. “It’s called a shunt,” Dr. Galiatsatos said, adding that the lungs will adapt. “They’re going to send the blood to the more healthy parts.” Breathing and physical exercises can aid this recovery.”

      • Uh yep. An autopSy tends to stop healing dead. It’s going to be shades of gray. The virus will kill those with comorbid conditions. It will also advance these conditions in pre-diagnosed persons that survive. So one question will be how many more than expected deaths will occur because of conditions advanced by the disease?

        In any event, a serious case of this crap will change your life. What isn’t known, and won’t be for awhile is how by many years will this reduce the average lifespan. I mean, you can live 10, 15, 20 years with diabetes, asthma, etc., without covid and 3 weeks with it.

        • Ironically, those already on blood thinners, statins, and ACE inhibitors, may have less chance of severe COVID effects and a higher survival rate.

          ACE inhibitor use prior to hospitalization boosts survival for COVID-19 patients.

          Statins Reduce COVID-19 Severity, Likely by Removing Cholesterol That Virus Uses to Infect

          Blood Thinners May Increase COVID Survival Rates

          If one end result of the pandemic is that public health agencies focus on educating people and getting treatment for those in lower socio-economic groups for COVID’s comorbidities, they could have longer, healthier lives.

          And NN, you might want to consider how your own behavior and constant negativity can affect your life span. One example mentioned in this article is “Filtering. You magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones.”

          Negative Thinking Can Shorten Life Span.

          • Yeah, cool irony in that. Hopefully anyone who was hospitalized continued to receive their ACE2 inhibitors. Sometimes, they drop the ball on current medications, ya know, in favor of immediacy.

            Who’s gonna pay for that awareness?

            Negative? Moi? Au contraire, it is not I in constant turmoil over the actions of Governors Northam, Cuomo, or DeSantis. They’re not malicious. They’re incompetent. Cocksurely incompetent. And, sadly, impotent in the face of the pandemic and half of their constituency.

            This is catharsis. It is Schadenfreude. It is watching entropy rise and history repeat.

            On a side note, I feel for Republicans. I truly do. Polling indicates that 70-some percent of Republicans believe in massive election fraud in the absence of evidence, that Covid-19 is a hoax in the face of piles of bodies, that there is a highly placed government intelligence operative, code name Q, who has evidence of child pornographers and sex slavers in the Democrat party, and that Trump is the most successful businessman and President ever, even with his bankruptcies, and his debt loads.

            What this means is that whenever 4 Republicans are sitting in a room, one of them is forced to think the other 3 are idiots. Hugo Chavez, eh?

          • Democrats are equally delusional, just a different list.

          • Aye Steve, but when it comes to corrosive, y’all done took da cake with da Trump card!

  12. Publius says more in a line of prose than most say in a lifetime of scribbles in the Washington Post.

    Regarding the WaPo scribbles, I fear a Post wide contagion of pathologies – self loathing, neuroticism, a growing array of anxiety disorders bubbling up from deep seated guilt. Hence, the ongoing mass hysteria at Washington Post, given their decades of pushing legalization of drugs damaging people of all sorts and kinds, particularly children.

    For example, this sampling excerpt from WSJ:

    ‘Legal Drugs and Fashionable – and Treacherous for Children
    When Kids have to be put in foster care, parental substance abuse is usually the underlying reason.
    By Naomi Schaefer Riley and John Walters

    “… In reality, drugs are very much a scourge, particularly in the lives of young children. In 2019 parental substance abuse was listed as a cause for a child’s removal to foster care 38% of the time, a share that has risen steadily in the past decade. Experts suggest this is an underestimate and the real number may be up to 80%.

    Ms. Riley’s interviews with foster parents suggest that there are very few cases of children in the system that don’t involve substance abuse. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of children who are in the care of a single parent or other guardian because of a mother or father’s drug use. In a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, three professors from Notre Dame estimated that “if drug abuse had remained at 1996 levels, 1.5 million fewer children aged 0-16 would have lived away from a parent in 2015.”

    Decriminalization efforts will likely exacerbate these problems. Such measures lower the risk and the cost of doing business for drug dealers and increase the supply of these drugs on streets across the country. Drugs will be cheaper and easier to get for adults already suffering from untreated mental illness, poverty or abuse. And the effects will be felt most severely by children.

    More drug availability means more drug use, which increases interpersonal violence, including abuse and neglect of children. Babies exposed to drugs in utero can experience severe withdrawal in the near term and developmental delays in the long term. Children going through withdrawal are extraordinarily difficult to care for, and already overwhelmed parents may respond violently.

    But the more common problem is that drug abuse leads to maltreatment of children. As the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2018, “Nationally, more than one quarter (28.7%) of victims are younger than 3 years old. Victims younger than 1 year are 15.3 percent of all victims.” Children under 3 made up more than three-quarters of child-maltreatment fatalities in fiscal 2018.

    Before their first birthday, children obviously require an enormous amount of attention—constant feeding and changing, burping and rocking. They can’t do anything for themselves. …” End Quote.

    For more see above article in Wall Street Journal, Nov. 19 edition.

  13. Let’s say we were discussing something like crime statistics and let’s say blacks had a higher arrest rate than whites in comparison to their representation in the general population. What would CONservatives be concluding about such stats when it comes to race…? If only there were some opinion pieces out there we could go to….

    • If you wish to be taken seriously, I’d suggest dropping the following from your statements. It just reinforces you’re more than half a troll and frankly not worth anyone’s time of day.

      What would CONservatives be concluding about such stats when it comes to race…? If only there were some opinion pieces out there we could go to….

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