Public Health Watch: Survey Indicates Attention to Racial Inequality During Pandemic Fading

After increased awareness soon after the emergence of COVID-19, fewer Americans see plight of people of color.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the health effects of “systemic racism” to the attention of many White Americans due to the high rate of infections and deaths in communities of color.

Unfortunately, these lessons, deeply ingrained into the lives of people of color in this country, may have been fleeting, based on the findings of a survey released December 9.

The survey, conducted by the RAND Corporation in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, documented a significant drop in the numbers of those nationally who agreed that people of color felt the health and financial impacts of COVID-19 more acutely than White Americans. In July 2020, 61.1% agreed that people of color have experienced more of a health impact due to the virus and 57.5% acknowledged that they have faced more of the financial burden during the pandemic.

However, less than 18 months later, these numbers fell to 52.7% and 50.3%, respectively, the survey showed.

“After everything we’ve been through as a society, it’s concerning to see fewer people recognizing racial disparities and the impacts of racism,” Brian Quinn, associate vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a press release. “Evidence-based policies, such as ensuring everyone has access to affordable healthcare, making the expanded Child Tax Credit permanent, and timely distribution of rental assistance, can help address the impacts of structural racism and improve health and prosperity. We can also learn from communities across the country that are already working to advance racial and health equity.”

Contagion has covered studies describing the effects of “social determinants of health” on the scope and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, it appears the mounting data hasn’t led to a long-term changed in perspective, at least if the results of the RAND survey are accurate.

For the survey, RAND researchers polled 2 groups: a general population sample (n=4,000) and a targeted sample that oversampled for people of color and those making less than $125,000 annually. The targeted sample was polled 4 times between July 2020 and September 2021, while the general population sample was interviewed during only the first and final collection waves.

Within the general population surveyed, from July 2020 to September 2021, there was a 3.2% decline in the number of people who agreed that poorer health outcomes, such as higher rates of diabetes and more deaths from COVID-19 among people of color stemmed from systemic racism. By September, nearly 60% of respondents said they did not see systemic racism as an important determinant of these health differences, the survey found. However, perhaps not surprisingly, among the targeted survey population, Black and Latino respondents were more likely than White respondents to recognize the disparate health and economic impacts of COVID-19 on people of color.

Similarly, as of September 2021, 63.8% of respondents indicated they felt that it is harder for Americans with low incomes to access healthcare, while 63.5% agreed that Americans living in rural areas also have reduced access. Conversely, though, 44.4% of respondents felt that Black Americans and 42.4% believed that Hispanic Americans face similar challenges compared with White Americans.

Although 68% of survey respondents still saw the pandemic as a potential driver for positive change as of September, this figure is down from 74.3% in July 2020. Notably, though, given the emergence of the Omicron variant, 63% of people surveyed support sending extra vaccine supplies to other countries, while 60% agree that if the US does not assist in fighting the spread of COVID-19 globally, the country is at greater risk.

“We conducted this survey because we wanted to see whether living through a once-in-a-century global pandemic would spur a shift in deep-seated perspectives and attitudes around health, systemic racism, and equity,” Anita Chandra, vice president and senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation, said in a press release. “We found that views around race and racism appear to be extremely entrenched. Moving forward, policies and actions that seek to address these issues must factor in where the public is and what needs to happen for these sentiments to evolve.”