In the summer of 2020 when calls for racial justice and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 were on full display, some speculated that the country seemed to be at a turning point for acknowledging how much racism affects people’s health and economic well-being.
However, a new national survey from the non-profit RAND Corporation reveals that despite the public outcry and mounting evidence that racism and the pandemic are contributing to disparities between people of color and White people, the public’s recognition of racial inequities and the impacts of systemic racism is fading. Indeed, in July 2020, 61.1% of respondents agreed that people of color face more of the health impact of COVID-19 than White people, and 57.5% agreed that they face more of the financial impact. More than a year later, these numbers have dropped to 52.7% and 50.3%, respectively.
The data suggest that there has not been a seismic shift or enduring change in perception.
“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. “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.”
As legislators around the country convene to tackle the pandemic and build their priorities for 2022, researchers say these findings must be top of mind as they work to make change. The good news is that of the same people surveyed about their views on race and health, most see the pandemic as a moment for positive change. Changes people hope to see include:
• improving access to health care (25.3%),
• prioritizing science in policy decisions (11.7%),
• protecting our freedom (11.1%), and
• increasing flexibility in how we all work (10.9%), among others.
And legislators can often look in their own backyards for inspiration. There is so much work being done at the community level to undo the impacts of racism and rebuild a more equitable society that are worth recognizing and learning from. For example, over the past few years, more than 200 cities, counties, and leaders declared racism a public health crisis. Researchers say that this is an important step that can lead to efforts for real, lasting change centered on equity. We are already seeing this play out in some settings, from statehouses to city halls, where health equity is driving policy decisions.
To read more about “COVID-19 and the Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk” survey findings, visit rwjf.org/covidsurvey.
To read more about communities working to center equity to improve the health of everyone, visit rwjf.org/prize.
With more than two-thirds of respondents believing the pandemic presents a moment for positive change, researchers say that while there’s work to be done, there are also reasons to be hopeful.