Study Shows Americans’ Mixed Reactions to COVID-19 Health Disparities

Skylar Kenney, Assistant Editor

In the summer of 2020, there were 2.5 times as many deaths per capita for Black Americans, compared to White Americans.

Americans are split in their response to learning the COVID-19 pandemic has unequal effects across social groups, according to a study published in Social Science and Medicine. The study found that White survey respondents who reported a more negative view of Black Americans in general became less likely to support extensive government efforts to combat the pandemic, while White Americans who had more favorable views of Black Americans became more likely to support these efforts.

The researchers conducted an online survey from August 2020 to September 2020, with a final sample of 3961 demographically representative American adults. The study used "feeling thermometers," on a scale from 0 to 100, to let participants rate their attitudes towards other racial groups. About 15% of White survey respondents reported a generally unfavorable view of Black Americans.

After learning more about health disparities, White Americans with "warmer" feelings toward Blacks favored a more vigorous public health response, while White Americans with a "cooler" view of Blacks subsequently viewed COVID-19 as a less urgent problem and became less inclined to support strong public health measures.

“From a public health perspective, there is both good and bad news,” said Evan Lieberman, PhD, co-author of the study and political scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a press release. “For [Black] Americans who were learning from this study that death rates were higher among [Black] Americans, this increased their perception that they were at greater risk from COVID[-19]. That's good news because a big part of public health messaging is to make people aware of these dangers. A second piece of good news is that a large share of White Americans feel empathic or close to Black Americans.”

Some participants were informed about the health disparities generated by Covid-19, and that as of last summer, there were 2.5 times as many deaths per capita for Black Americans, compared to White Americans. The respondents were then asked a series of follow-up questions about COVID-19 risk, the government reaction, public health measures, personal liberties, and economic relief measures.

White survey respondents who reported an unfavorable view of Black Americans were most likely to think the government was doing too much to combat COVID-19 for instance, while those more favorable were most likely to think the government was doing too little. The researchers identified a similar pattern related to acceptance of certain public health measures such as social distancing and restricting access to public venues.

“It was telling that this share of participants, when they learned this information, became disinclined to have a public health response to COVID[-19],” Lieberman said in the press release. “Whites who were cool toward Blacks at the start of the study were already relatively less inclined to support aggressive COVID[-19] policies. So, the overall effect of receiving the information was to further polarize attitudes on this important set of policies.”

According to the study’s authors, the results are consistent with those of other studies finding that, for example, White American men disproportionately do not want to get vaccinated.

“That's a clear expression of a denial of the problem and a lack of interest in participating in what needs to be a coordinated effort to achieve herd immunity,” Lieberman said in the release. “They're not interested in a multiracial collective [solution], nor do they perceive themselves to be particularly vulnerable”

The researchers said they recognize the results of the study may seem counter-intuitive, as health officials place a high importance on delivering facts to the public, while the results of their survey suggest that certain facts can lead a proportion of the population to become more indifferent.

“The best strategy would be some targeting in messaging,” Lieberman said in the press release. “More messaging that reminds us of the different ways we're interconnected, in which we all lose out to the extent that this pandemic persists.”

REFERENCE

Study reveals mixed reactions about COVID-19 health disparities [news release]. EurekAlert; May 10, 2021. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-05/miot-srm051021.php