In August, as schools and child care centers across the country were trying to determine how best to begin the school year safely and millions of parents were forced to make impossible decisions about if and how their children should return, President Trump incorrectly stated that children were immune from the disease that has now infected more than 7 million Americans and taken more than 200,000 American lives: “If you look at children, children are almost—I would almost say definitely—but almost immune from this disease.”
While infection and death rates may in fact be lower for children when compared to adults, our children are certainly not immune—to the virus itself or to the racial inequities it is magnifying. Recent CDC reports show that more than 75 percent of children dying from COVID-19 are Hispanic, Black, and American Indian children, though they represent only 41 percent of the population.
These disparities mirror the disparities we see amongst adults and reflect decades of structural racism and injustice that have created continued social and economic inequities. These inequities put the health and wellbeing of Black, Hispanic, and American Indian children at risk: Long before COVID-19, children of color were more likely to experience harmful environmental factors and toxic stress, grow up with an underlying health conditions, and experience inequitable health care into adulthood including racial bias, discrimination, and inadequate treatment. For example, nearly 33 percent of Black adults in a recent study reported experiencing some type of discrimination when visiting a health clinic and 21 percent reported avoiding health care due to fear of discrimination.
Now amid the ongoing pandemic, children of color are more likely to have parents who are essential workers, risking their lives to put food on the table and keep essential services running. Black, Hispanic, and American Indian families are more likely to experience housing insecurity and more crowded housing conditions, food insecurity, and wealth gaps. And they are more likely to face additional barriers to accessing high-quality, non-discriminatory health care even during a public health crisis.
To compound the troubling facts about child infection rates and deaths, children are losing health coverage at an alarming rate. Data released from the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this month showed that the number of uninsured children has been steadily climbing over the past three years with nearly 4.4 million children lacking health insurance in 2019—before the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis began. And unsurpringly, Black children, Hispanic children, and undocumented children were far more likely to be uninsured than their white or documented peers. We know loss of health coverage and these disparities are likely to have only worsened in recent months as families of color are experiencing higher unemployment rates and are at risk of losing job-based health insurance.
At a time when access to high-quality, non-discriminatory health care is more essential than ever, these inequities are especially alarming. We need federal and local COVID-19 responses that are informed by these racial and ethnic disparities, and we need long-term solutions to address the health disparities that will continue to harm children and families of color long after this crisis ends.
“This is the strongest evidence yet that there are deep racial disparities in children just like there are in adults,” said John Williams, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “What that should mean for people is steps like wearing a mask are not just about protecting your family and yourself. It is about racial equity.”
Read the reporting about the disproportionate impact of COVID on Black, Hispanic, and American Indian children here.