Recent immigrants at increased pandemic risk

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Science  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6497, pp. 1323
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd1098

In her News Feature “An unequal blow” (15 May, p. 700), L. Wade discusses the vulnerability of poor people and members of minorities during both past and present pandemics. However, the article overlooks recent immigrants, who have also been particularly vulnerable to pandemics in the past and are threatened now by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Human migration was also taking place during epidemics of the past. During the Black Death, some of those who died in London originated from distant portions of Britain (1), and rural refugees in Cairo, Egypt, exhibited a higher susceptibility to death (2). During plagues of the late preindustrial era in Milan, Italy, the death rate was higher among poor people originating from surrounding villages (3). In Dijon, France, during early recurrences of the Black Death, poor newcomers were more likely to die than were poor people who were long established in the city or who had recently settled but were members of established families (4).

The COVID-19 pandemic poses similar risks. In the U.S. states with newer Latino communities, Latinos have tested positive at higher rates than people with comparable income. In contrast, in some states with long-established Latino communities, Latinos are getting sick at rates similar to other population groups (5).

Although the comparative importance of frailty factors accounting for the present situation is a matter of debate, socio-economic and environmental factors are essential (6). This is consistent with the long-term historical perspective: During preindustrial European plagues, the vulnerable short-range migrants likely differed from the host population only in housing and working conditions. As past and present data demonstrate, recent immigrants should be included in discussions of risks to marginalized groups.

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