Soon after COVID-19 spread across the United States, the racial disparities became clear: Black Americans’ chances of dying after infection were — and remain — twice that of white Americans. The realization spurred discussion in news reports across the country about health inequities.
But highlighting the racial disparities in COVID-19 infection and death made some white people less wary of the virus, according to a new study.
Researchers found that when white people were made aware of the disproportionate impact the coronavirus had on communities of color, they showed less empathy toward those most vulnerable and less support for taking safety precautions like masking, social distancing, and avoiding nonessential travel. In other words, knowing about racial disparities reduced how threatened they felt by the virus.
The study noted that white people’s support for reopening the U.S. economy increased — regardless of the public health risks — as data revealed COVID’s racial disparities in the summer of 2020.
“It’s rather concerning,” said Allison Skinner-Dorkenoo, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and co-author of the study. “People do not feel as connected to and concerned about people that seem more distant from them.”
During the pandemic, the COVID-19 virus has become a vehicle to highlight how systemic racism influences other health outcomes, such as heart disease, diabetes, HIV, and certain cancers.
But the study’s findings, published recently in the journal Social Science & Medicine, raise questions about how researchers, journalists, physicians, and advocates report racial disparities and whether raising awareness about inequities could reduce concern and perpetuate unintended harm.
New data released by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Black adults are more vigilant about COVID-19 precautions. More than 60% said they masked every time when inside public places in the past 30 days, and 20% indicated they mask most of the time. In comparison, less than 20% of white adults said they used a mask every time.
But in the journal study, there is variation in how white adults responded to information about the virus’s disparate impact. When they understood the root causes of health disparities, it boosted their support for safety precautions. White respondents with prior knowledge of disparities in access to personal protective gear, COVID-19 testing, and the demographics of workers deemed essential were the most fearful of the virus.
To measure fear, researchers asked participants to rate how much they agreed with statements like “I am afraid of family members or friends losing their lives because of COVID-19.”
The findings on white respondents’ varying degrees of fear could mean that more widespread knowledge of the country’s history of racism and medical bias could increase empathy, experts say.
“We need to talk more about the systems and the history of how we got here,” said Skinner-Dorkenoo, the co-author.
The study’s findings point to a need to be more explicit about labeling history and systemic inequities as unjust, she said. Knowing that large systems, such as health care institutions and socioeconomic class, impact health outcomes might also help those who aren’t a part of the vulnerable group understand that they are part of those systems.
“When you realize that things are systemically connected, you realize that you are going to be affected as well,” said Dr. Carla Williams, an associate professor of medicine and public health at Howard University.
How the study’s participants received information about the systems at play mattered. When information was presented in the moment that explained how the disparities were tied to complex systemic factors, participants were less likely to support protective measures.
When the problem seems too big, scary, and impossible to address, Williams said, it makes it hard for people to understand how their individual behavior impacts large trends ingrained in institutions.
Dr. Olugbenga Ogedegbe, director of NYU’s Institute for Excellence in Health Equity, believes the study’s findings shouldn’t limit public discussions about racial disparities.
“The silver lining with COVID is that we finally shed light on the things we’ve been talking about for decades,” he said. “We cannot stop because folks are uncomfortable.”
The finding that less-affected groups show less empathy is not limited to health outcomes, Ogedegbe said.
“Any time we talk about racial inequity, whether that’s in health, whether that’s in voting rights, whether that’s in civil rights, we tend to have a backlash,” he said. But, Ogedegbe added, the response to COVID-19 might be unique.
“It was politicized from day one,” he said. “There are no other health conditions where we have so much politics” that might influence the level of fear of the virus and support for protections.
Experts said that whenever groups are separated across demographics, decreased concern is likely to appear. Similar research examining opinions on COVID-19 by age might show that young people take fewer precautions since adults over the age of 65 were more likely to face severe complications.
For Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the Center for Black Health & Equity, the study’s findings on the racial empathy gap are unsurprising. “The country has never really valued equity,” he noted.
There should be more focus on the populations who are most affected rather than on how outside groups feel, he said. The persisting disparities in health outcomes need to be addressed.
As COVID-19 cases drop, “the question becomes who’s starting to recover,” he said. “It’s going to take African Americans a whole lot longer to recover.”