Analysis: The coronavirus hits Texans of color harder

Recent polling data suggests that Texans of color are experiencing a more acute sense of vulnerability to the pandemic and its dire economic fallout than white Texans. The long, initial shock of the new coronavirus is beginning to give way to the grind of long-existing problems, like across-the-board disparities experienced by black and Hispanic people in the health care system.

From disproportionately low rates of insurance coverage to high rates of preexisting conditions like heart disease and diabetes, those disparities increase vulnerability to infection and severity of the coronavirus. As the pandemic has spread, the same failure to ramp up testing that has made the coronavirus maddeningly difficult to contain has also contributed to the difficulty of gauging its disparate impact on communities of color.

The most evident disparate impact on black and Hispanic Americans can be seen in COVID-19 infection and death data. The national data is incomplete, limited by low rates of testing and uneven collection and reporting that create huge gaps in our knowledge. The situation is similar, if slightly better, in Texas. As of Monday, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services reported that of the almost 14,000 “completed case investigations,” 27.8% of patients were classified as white, 39.4% were Hispanic, 15.2% were black, 3.5% were Asian and 13.34% were unknown.

The share of white patients in these totals is well below their estimated share of the population (41.5%), with Asians somewhat below their population share (5.2%). Hispanics are strikingly close to proportional to their share of the population (39.6%), while black people make up a higher share of confirmed cases than their population share (12.8%) would suggest. There are uncertainties in the numbers: In two commonly used running totals of testing across states, Texas ranks 40th and 42nd among the 50 states.

Even so, the comparatively high vulnerability of members of racial and ethnic minority groups to the pandemic echoes their higher levels of concern about becoming infected. According to the April 2020 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, the differences between whites and other ethnic and racial groups was striking: 60% of blacks, 62% of Hispanics and 69% of Asians reported being very or extremely concerned that they or someone they know will contract the virus, compared with 51% of whites. Grouping Texans into two large categories that capture those who identify as white and those who don’t, 60% of those who chose a response other than white reported being very or extremely concerned.

The pandemic experiences among Texans of color may be tilting their calculations as they balance threats to both personal and public health with the ever-increasing economic hardship created by efforts to contain the virus, which disproportionately affects those Texans, too.

While Texans of color are somewhat more likely to say that they’ve experienced changes in their work situations due to the coronavirus (48% compared with 41% for white Texans), the share who describe that change as a job loss (46%) is dramatically higher for them than for white people (28%). Looking specifically at white, black and Hispanic Texans, the share reporting being unemployed due to the coronavirus among registered voters increases from 11.5% for whites to 20.2% for blacks to 26.5% for Hispanics.

Texans of color acknowledged more concern than white Texans in response to almost every potential negative outcome of the twin public health and economic crises mentioned in the poll. That included eight areas of potential concern, like catching the coronavirus, losing a job, being able to pay the rent and personal safety. While 29% of white Texans are concerned about being able to pay their bills, that increases to 41% among Texans of color; 23% of white people are concerned about losing a job, compared with 33% of people of color; and 24% of white people are worried about making rent or housing payments, compared with 40% of people of color.

Yet, when asked to rate the extent of their concerns, contracting the coronavirus was the top concern of 60% of Texans of color — more than any other concern.

The preeminence of health concerns over the severe economic impact being felt among Texans of color compared with white Texans seems to reflect their increased vulnerability to infection. More Texans of color than white Texans fear the spread of the coronavirus in their communities (59% to 49%). White Texans are much more likely to focus their concern on the economy: 77% and 71% of them expressed concern about the national and state economies, respectively, compared with 65% and 62% of Texans of color.

The state’s leadership has sent mixed messages on just how much testing will increase, and even how important more testing is in the effort to contain the spread of the virus in Texas. A broader and theoretically more systematic testing regime in the state could help clarify the extent to which preexisting racial and ethnic disparities in the health care system have been expressed and likely exacerbated by the onset of the pandemic.

Whatever the particulars, public opinion data strongly suggests that members of different racial and ethnic groups in Texas are having very different experiences of the pandemic still gripping the state.