COVID-19 Does Discriminate

by Patricia Kozikowski, September 28, 2020

Throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we have heard the phrase “the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate” multiple times. But if the virus doesn’t discriminate, why are certain groups of people suffering more than others?

A perfect example of this social issue is the differences in fatality rates in New York City and its surrounding areas. On May 8, 2020, Dr. Sandro Galea reported that the fatality rate from COVID-19 in Brooklyn is 7.8%, in the Bronx is 6.5%, in Queens is 6.8%, in Nassau County is 3.8%, in Suffolk County is 2.6%. Brooklyn has had a COVID-19 fatality rate that is two times higher than in Nassau County. Both of these communities are only 50 minutes away from each other. So why are twice as many people dying from the pandemic in Brooklyn than in a neighboring community that is less than an hour away?

A number of risk factors have been identified as contributing to these differences. Most of these risk factors correlate with income and race (Brown & Ravallion, 2020). While anyone can be infected by COVID-19, people with low-income are suffering more cases and deaths than people with high-incomes. Researchers W. Holmes Finch and Maria E Hernández Finch (2020) at Ball State University examined incidence and death rates during the first ten weeks of the pandemic. They discovered that counties with higher overall poverty had higher numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases than in other counties. Additionally, they discovered that a larger number of deaths were associated with higher incidence of low birth weights and urban areas.

People with low-incomes are not only at a higher risk for infection and other physical health conditions, but they are also at a higher risk for developing mental health issues (Khullar & Chokshi, 2018). Prior to the pandemic, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that 9.8 million adults in the United States had a serious mental illness and 25% of those individuals were below the poverty line. Some of the factors that contribute to this relationship are community violence, food insecurity, unstable housing, low-income, and low access to healthcare (Jordan, 2015). Living in this uncertainty can cause a lot of stress and anxiety, eventually leading to larger mental health issues.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, mental health symptoms have risen dramatically in the general population. In a KFF Tracking Poll, 53% of adults in the United States reported that the coronavirus has negatively impacted their mental health (Panchal et al., 2020). This was significantly higher than the mental health rates reported in the beginning of March. The pandemic has resulted in a lot of stress and anxiety about infection, social isolation, months of quarantine, the loss of jobs and businesses, and economic uncertainty. Additionally, Torales et al. (2020) reported that lower socioeconomic status (SES), interpersonal conflict, lower resilience, and lower social support are some risk factors that can increase mental health issues during the pandemic. The mental well-being of the general population has decreased, but what does this mean for individuals who were living with low-income before the start of the pandemic?

Residents of low-income communities suffered the mental health effects of poverty long before the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has only added stress to the daily lives of people in these communities. In general, people living with low-incomes report higher levels of negative mental health related to the coronavirus than those with high-incomes. In a KFF Tracking Poll conducted in July, 35% of individuals making less than $40,000 a year, 22% of individuals making between $40,000 to $89,999, and 20% of individuals making over $90,000 reported that they experienced negative mental health related to worry and stress from the coronavirus (Panchal et al., 2020). Additionally, Pew Research Center American Trends Panel conducted a survey measuring the proportion of respondents experiencing psychological distress (Keeter, 2020). They observed that psychological distress was substantially larger in participants in the lower income tertile (33%) than the upper income tertile (17%). Both of these findings suggest that people living with low-incomes are disproportionately affected by the pandemic than their advantaged counterparts.

The coronavirus calls attention to many social issues that are going on in the United States. These physical and mental health issues are not novel but are rooted in decades of systematic inequality. Residents of these low-income communities have always suffered the most. The pandemic has only exacerbated the issues that they deal with on a daily basis. The next time you hear someone say that the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, please remember that some of us are at a higher risk for experiencing the negative effects of the virus. 


Resources

Brown, C., & Ravallion, M. (2020).  Poverty, inequality, and COVID-19 in the US. https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us.

Finch, W. H., & Finch, M. E. H. (2020). Poverty and Covid-19: Rates of Incidence and Deaths in the United States During the First 10 Weeks of the Pandemic. Frontiers in Sociology, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2020.00047

Galea, S. (2020, May 8). COVID-19 Is Bad for All but Devastating for the Poor. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-health/202005/covid-19-is-bad-all-devastating-the-poor.

Jordan, R. (2015, May 13). Poverty’s toll on mental health. Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/povertys-toll-mental-health

Keeter, S. (2020, July 27). People financially affected by coronavirus outbreak are experiencing more psychological distress than others. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/30/people-financially-affected-by-covid-19-outbreak-are-experiencing-more-psychological-distress-than-others/

Khullar, D., & Chokshi, D. A. (2018, October 4). Health, Income, & Poverty: Where We Are & What Could Help. Health, Income, & Poverty: Where We Are & What Could Help | Health Affairs. https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hpb20180817.901935/full/ 

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). https://nsduhweb.rti.org/respweb/homepage.cfm

Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Chidabaram, P., Cailey, Hamel, L., Garfield, R., … Orgera, K. (2020, August 21). The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/

Torales, J., O’Higgins, M., Castaldelli-Maia, J. M., & Ventriglio, A. (2020). The outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus and its impact on global mental health. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 66(4), 317–320. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764020915212


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