Posted on February 20, 2021

Reparations for Slavery Could Have Reduced COVID-19 Transmission and Deaths in the Us, Harvard Study Says

Scottie Andrew, CNN, February 16, 2021

Covid-19 is disproportionately sickening and killing Black Americans, the result of centuries of structural racism, a group of Harvard researchers says.

If the US had paid reparations the descendants of Black Americans who were enslaved, though, the risk of severe illness and death from the virus would be far lower, according to a new, peer-reviewed study by the researchers.

The group of researchers, from Harvard Medical School and the Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice, examined how reparation payments made before the pandemic would have affected Louisiana, a state that remains segregated in parts, and found that the payments could have reduced coronavirus transmission in the state anywhere between 31% to 68%.

As the US approaches one year of living with Covid-19, Black Americans and other groups, including Hispanic and Native American people, are as much as 4 times more likely to be hospitalized than White Americans, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.


“The effects of racial justice interventions on Black/white health disparities are rarely investigated, which forms part of how systemic racism is reproduced,” study author Dr. Eugene Richardson, an assistant professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, told CNN in an email.

“Our study simply gives yet another example of how racism gets into people’s bodies and makes them sick, which can be added to this litany (of evidence for reparations).”


To model how reparations would have affected Covid-19 transmission, the researchers chose Louisiana, one of the states that reported Covid-19 cases by race at the beginning of the pandemic and a state where the population is still “highly segregated” between Black and non-Black residents, according to the study.

Researchers compared Louisiana at the outset of the pandemic to South Korea, a relatively egalitarian society that doesn’t have a “large, segregated subgroup of the population composed of the descendants of enslaved persons.” Their goal, according to the study, was to see if the difference in infection rates was driven by differences in social structures.

To do this, the researchers created a statistical model using “R-naught,” a mathematical term that represents the average number of people an infected person spreads the virus to. The term accounts for social structure, behavior and differential risk, too, Richardson told CNN.


The researcher’s model found that Louisiana took twice as long as South Korea to bring the R-naught value below 1, “the critical value at which an outbreak will die out in a population.”


The modeling outlined by the research team is the latest evidence that reparations can address and begin to dismantle systemic racism in the US, Richardson said.

Previous explanations for Black Americans’ high risk of severe sickness or death from Covid-19 pointed to high rates of preexisting conditions like cancer and diabetes or “personal failure” to follow public health advice, the researchers wrote.

But those explanations don’t address how systemic racism positions Black Americans in a way that makes them more likely to be exposed to Covid-19 and less likely to survive it.


“These risks are structural — that is, not determined by personal choice or rational assessment,” Richardson said in an email to CNN.