The fact is unavoidable: Black and Hispanic Americans have been dying of the coronavirus at rates 3.5x those of white Americans. For weeks now, politicians and activists have cited these data as evidence that “white supremacy” does, in fact, exist, since minorities – they argued – were more likely to work low-paid “essential” jobs at grocery stores, pharmacies, etc.
As it turns out, these theories, reported as if they were undeniable truths by the mainstream press (including the New York Times & Washington Post), didn’t tell the whole story. While it’s true minorities are dying at higher rates than white people from COVID-19, several recently published studies have determined that these higher mortality rates are likely connected to their higher use of public transit to commute to work – either via subway or bus.
Furthermore, the study finds, elevated infection and mortality rates impact all people who take public transit, regardless of racial or economic status.
A study supervised and published by University of Virginia economist John McLaren found that the racial discrepancy remained even after controlling for income and health insurance rates. At first, this result puzzled the team of economists. Until they examined these infection rates through a different lens: that of transportation.
About 10.4% of black commuters take public transit, versus 3.4% of white commuters, according to Census data. McLaren and his team found that by controlling for the use of public transit, the racial disparity in COVID-19 deaths becomes far less pronounced.
This suggests that no matter what your job, or your race, one of the most dangerous things you can do to put yourself at risk during the outbreak is to rely on public transit, be it buses or subways, in NYC, or elsewhere.
The second study, authored by MIT’s Christopher Knittel and Bora Ozaltun, found that for every 10% increase in the share of county residents who rely on public transit raised the mortality rate of COVID-19 by 1.21 per 1,000 people. In their analysis, the researchers controlled for race, income, age and climate, among other variables.
Both studies clearly show how public transit usage isn’t the only factor leading to the discrepancy in deaths between minorities and whites in America. Other important factors include access to paid sick leave, residential segregation (the old urban-suburban divide) and uneven access to health care.
Importantly, counties with higher shares of people who drove or walked to work compared with those working from home also saw higher mortality rates when controlling for other factors, which suggests that just leaving the house does lead to a dramatic increase in infection risk, even as research shows that the virus spreads most quickly between members of a household, or neighbors who live in close proximity to one another.
Read both the studies below. First, we have the study led by McLaren….
….and the study by Knittel & Ozaltun: