close up of covid bacteria

Racial and ethnic minority Nebraskans mirror their national counterparts in being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, Nebraska researchers say.

In Nebraska, Barbara Gomez Aguinaga, assistant professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Public Administration, said high rates of health disparities in COVID-19 cases exist among racial groups, especially Black, Asian-American and Hispanic populations.

She said the data has shown that while Nebraskans who identify as Hispanic only make up 11 percent of the state’s population, they made up over 50 percent of the confirmed cases in 2020. 

“Understanding this data can help us identify vulnerable populations, in this case, Latinos African Americans and Asian Americans in Nebraska, and it can help us improve health outcomes,” Aguinaga said. 

Marc Garcia, assistant professor of sociology and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said structural racism is a fundamental cause of health disparities, as opposed to underlying health conditions or other factors.  

“It operates through multiple domains – criminal justice system, education, employment, housing and healthcare – to create systems of inequality that harm the health of minority and immigrant groups,” Garcia said in an interview with Nebraska Today.

In a study published by Garcia and three others, the evidence suggests structural racism and disparities in housing, transportation and occupations are likely raising the risk of exposure and transmission of the virus among minority communities. 

Their research found that such inequities can increase the risk of exposure and delayed medical attention, further heightening the risks for severe disease outcomes and the need to seek emergency care.

But it’s not enough to just look at the data, said Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

During UNL’s Thomas C. Sorenson Policy seminar on April 13, “Policies for a Gender-Equitable Recovery and Resilience After COVID-19” Mason said that the data needs to be humanized and long-term changes need to be implemented.

“Before the pandemic, many communities were already struggling with economic barriers, health issues, social and political inequalities,” she said. “And all those things became magnified and exacerbated during the pandemic.” 

Mason said because minority groups already suffer social and health inequalities, the disproportionate harm from the pandemic has further threatened an inclusive, equitable and prosperous economy and society.

To make these changes, she said policymakers need to not only look at the data from the pandemic but also look at who has been the most severely affected historically by these grievances. 

“The pandemic has exposed many of the systems and inequalities in the U.S. that we haven’t seen for quite some time,” she said. “And now we’re in this moment where we realize these are not individual problems, they are structural and institutional problems that deserve a long-term fix.”