Study: Covid's racial disparities made some white people less vigilant about the virus

·3 min read
Jeff Gritchen

In May 2020, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard virtual arguments about the state’s stay-at-home order, Gov. Tony Evers pointed to a tenfold Covid surge in Brown County, home to a meatpacking plant whose workers are mostly Black and Latino according to The Washington Post.

Chief Justice Patience Roggensack said, then, that spikes in cases “were due to the meatpacking, though. That’s where Brown County got the flare. It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.”

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the grassroots organization Voces de la Frontera, which advocates for the meatpacking workers, told WISN in May 2020 that Roggensack made “a racist comment and an elitist comment,” and suggested the judge did not believe the workers — who are mostly Black, Latino and immigrants — to be “’regular folks’ who deserve protection.”

Roggensack did not respond to the backlash publicly and a spokesperson for the justice told NBC News that she will not be commenting on the matter.

But her comments served as an early illustration of a pattern of attitudes about the pandemic, according to researchers from the University of Georgia. A new study from the school’s psychology department published in Social Science & Medicine, found that white people surveyed in the United States in fall 2020 cared less and were even more likely to shun pandemic safety precautions after learning about the disproportionate ways it impacts Black communities and other communities of color.

“When white people in the U.S. were more aware of racial disparities in Covid-19, they were less fearful of Covid-19,” said Allison Skinner-Dorkenoo, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and co-author of the study. “We found evidence of less empathy for people who are vulnerable to Covid-19 and we also found evidence of reduced support for safety precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

She added that the findings show that white people tend to care less about Covid and its impact when they believe it is “not a white people problem.”

Covid has ravaged Black communities since it began to spread in the U.S. The illness and its economic fallout have affected Black people more than others through everything from health and unemployment to education. Meanwhile, experts have consistently asserted that the negative impact is due not to biology, but to systemic racism. A fall study led by researchers with the National Cancer Institute found that Covid deaths among Black, Latino and Native Americans were up to four times higher than in white populations.

The plight of Black people during the pandemic is well-documented, and headlines about the health disparities have appeared since the early months of the crisis. But researchers of the recent study said attempts to inform the public of these persistent inequalities could “backfire.”

Instead of the news of vulnerable populations leading to empathy and care, it has largely prompted white people to consider themselves less vulnerable to the virus and, thus, fail to support safety precautions, the study implied.

The research included at least 2,000 white people under the age of 65 from across the country. There was, however, a small portion of participants for whom the articles about disparities had the opposite effect. White people who were aware of and knowledgeable about structural inequalities were more empathetic, fearful of the virus, and more likely to accept Covid safety precautions.

This, Skinner-Dorkenoo said, highlights perhaps one way of combating Covid apathy.

“I think there is potential to think about educating people about the structural and systemic inequalities. Contextualizing this, but giving more information and … really highlighting the injustice” of these vulnerabilities, she said. “This didn’t just happen, it wasn’t just random. It was socially designed to happen this way.”

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