Socioeconomic Ramifications in the United States

Illness and health have an impact on our lives and communities, and vice versa. COVID-19 is no exception--the ways we gather and interact with one another directly enable transmission of this disease, and steps to mitigate disease spread have ripple effects in our lives. Earlier in this module, you read about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color and incarcerated persons, as well as the interventions being undertaken to address housing insecurity. Race, incarceration, and housing are just three of the many social determinants of health, and we encourage you to continue to explore the role of social determinants of health in this pandemic in this section. In particular, we encourage you to consider how infectious diseases and societal responses to them disproportionately impact folks experiencing:

  • Social isolation

  • Housing insecurity

  • Incarceration

  • Insecure immigration status

  • Lack of paid sick leave/ability to take time off from work

  • Financial instability

  • Lack of childcare and disparities in education in light of school closings

Social Isolation

Social distancing asks us to stay physically separated from one another, posing the risk of increasing social isolation and loneliness (social distancing still allows for other forms of social connection, mostly through technology, that can help decrease social isolation and loneliness). This risk is particularly high for elderly individuals and those already isolated. While the relationship between isolation caused by social distancing and mental health has not been studied, experts on social isolation and its associated negative health outcomes have begun to weigh in on potential impacts social distancing may have. See this meta-analysis on the effect of social relationships on morbidity and mortality for more information.

Social Stigma and Racism

As rates of COVID-19 infection have increased across the United States, so too have racist and xenophobic sentiments toward Chinese and Chinese-American people, or, more broadly, people who appear East Asian. This has escalated to include verbal and physical attacks and avoidance of Asian American small businesses. While it has been difficult to quantify, various community organizations and media outlets have noted a sharp increase in tips and reports. Many have linked this behavior to politicians’ repeated use of “the Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” rather than “COVID-19” or “coronavirus,” raising concerns about scapegoating. The WHO has cautioned against language that promotes social stigma or attaches locations to the illness. Further guidance from the WHO in preventing social stigma and the spread of inaccurate information can be found here.

Perhaps it is the uncertainty of pandemics or the intangibility of a virus, but scapegoating, as we are seeing with the coronavirus, has historically been common practice in the face of global pandemic. For instance, Europeans blamed Jews for the spread of the Black Death (1348) and North and South Americans blamed those in Mexico for the spread of the Swine Flu (2009). Unfortunately, those of Asian descent have often been the target of the pandemic-related scapegoating. In the mid-19th century, anti-Asian sentiments were on the rise in the United States, especially in California where the highest numbers of Asian immigrants settled. Already relegated to the lower tiers of society, Asian Americans were blamed for the smallpox, malaria, and leprosy that plagued cities like San Francisco. As a result, the United States government enacted overtly anti-Asian legislation in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States. Eventually repealed in 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act, among many other anti-Asian actions and sentiments, have perpetuated stigma and “otherness” among the Asian American population. In turn, this population has often become the target of unfounded and unfair treatment secondary to the blame imposed upon this population by the larger population.

Insecure Immigration Status

Restrictions on land and air travel to limit viral spread, while necessary from a public health standpoint, have placed significant stress on immigrants, recent migrants, asylum seekers, and those in immigration detention. These populations are at increased risk for COVID exposure and associated socioeconomic hardship as “immigrants on average have less access to safety-net benefits, are more likely to lack health insurance coverage, and have lower median incomes than the U.S. born” (Chisti & Pierce, MPI). Various policies enacted in response to the pandemic, including the CARES Act mentioned above, exclude immigrants and fail to recognize that “every person’s health and financial stability are critical” (ACLU). While legislative policies have neglected to protect these populations, many of them find themselves labeled as “essential”, whether they are working within the hospital systems, in the service industry, or in the food industry. Additionally, the essential workforce is greatly supported by DACA (deferred action for childhood arrivals) recipients, for instance upwards of 43,000 DACA recipients work in health care and 76,000 work in the food and service industry. In the face of COVID-19 related anxieties, DACA recipients find themselves concerned about the future of DACA and how renewal offices may be delayed/shut down or the protection they receive may be repealed. Certain considerations will also need to be made about legal immigration status and visas that are essential to the farm industry -- as the U.S. has halted H2A visas that allow migrant farmworkers to enter the country each growing season. See more here on farmworker visas. Additionally, there have been several efforts to protect those in ICE detention centers, with several legal advocates and judges calling on the detention centers to release residents to mitigate the spread of COVID. These are some of the myriad issues facing this at risk population in the face of the pandemic, but certainly not a complete picture. Hopefully, in the weeks to come this population will also be included in the ongoing efforts to combat disparities during the pandemic.

Further Reading

Accessing Resources: Food and Housing

Lack of income due to job loss, stay at home orders, and “panic buying” have made it difficult for many Americans to find and purchase needed food. Food insecurity has the potential to rise by over 10 million individuals in the coming months, similar to levels seen during the Great Recession. Record numbers of families are relying on food banks and other emergency food resources at the same time that these organizations are seeing fewer donations from the hospitality industry. Food insecurity and social isolation are compounded within communities at the highest risk for COVID-related complications, as food deserts overlap with areas of high unemployment and rates of comorbid conditions. Similar to food insecurity, the risk for housing insecurity is increased with loss of income from unemployment. While eviction bans have been implemented around the country, loopholes mean that many individuals still lose their housing.

Further Reading

Impact on Education

Early in the pandemic, schools closed their facilities and switched to virtual learning to avoid transmission of disease. Prior to the pandemic, there were clear disparities in the quality of education in lower income districts nationwide. The closure of in-person school has only furthered these disparities, as students have begun engaging in virtual learning. The etiologies of these disparities have been studied and described well. Schools in poorly resourced settings have less access to technology, making the transition to virtual learning more difficult. In addition, these schools are having to invest more in training their teachers on the inclusion of technology in the classroom, as this type of professional development was not previously made available. For a number of reasons, including disparate access to technology, rates of virtual drop out are high in cities, as one study in Boston showed. Moreover, schools in lower resourced districts serve higher percentages of kids with food insecurity. These children depended on their school for 1-2 meals everyday. Their schools very quickly set up methods to deliver food to students in the midst of the pandemic. This meant, however, that these already low resourced institutions had even fewer funds to devote to education.

Students who live in well-resourced districts are also likely to benefit from several factors in their home that improve their education. They are more likely to have more books at home, which they can use to supplement their education. They also are more likely to have parents at home who attended higher education themselves and have developed the skills necessary to teach their kids.

These educational disparities created and exacerbated by the pandemic will likely have severe ramifications on the education of kids living in low-resourced settings. For more resources to teach kids about COVID-19 at home, please see the COVID-19 Classroom curriculum.

Impact on Work: Small Businesses, Essential Workers, and Unemployment

Social distancing has become an important strategy for slowing viral spread and ‘flattening the curve.’ Nevertheless, it has had dramatic impacts for those unable to work from home, as well as businesses that rely on in-person interactions, such as brick and mortar stores, restaurants, museums, and theaters. Early research has shown that nearly half of small businesses have temporarily closed, and large numbers of small business employees have been furloughed or permanently let go. Compounding the current crisis, financial fragility is the norm for these businesses, with many unable to sustain even one month of expenses without their typical cash flow. Many businesses are seeking support through the CARES act and additional loan and grant programs, though many of these are plagued with bureaucratic hoops. This article describes the struggle of food service workers whose work requires them to be public-facing, often without the option for paid sick leave.

Essential workers, including grocery workers, food service workers, public transit drivers, and many more, are exposed to the public on a daily basis, often without the protection they need. In response to lack of protections and continued low wages despite increasingly hazardous working conditions, workers from Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods have organized around increased health precautions, hazard pay, and free COVID-19 testing, among other protections. Additional smaller-scale strikes have occurred at restaurants, packaging facilities, and manufacturing plants around the world. As the pandemic progresses, evidence is emerging that these workers are getting sick and dying at disproportionate rates. With lack of sick leave and low pay rates, these employees often feel forced to continue working to provide for their families, even if they feel unsafe or unwell.

As the pandemic escalated, unemployment rates in the U.S.have soared. Between March 15 and June 6, over 44.2 million individuals filed for unemployment, reaching a peak of 6.9 million claims in one week on March 28, nearly ten times the previous record. Updated data released June 5 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed that the unemployment rate has reached 13.3%, improving from May 8’s estimate of 14.7%, which is higher than it has been since the Great Depression. The increase in unemployment claims has overwhelmed the system, leading to long waits on the phone, crashing websites, and, ultimately, delays in accessing essential benefits. Notably, though other countries have implemented similarly restrictive social distancing policies, they have not triggered similar massive unemployment claims. Instead, many countries have enacted policies that require employers to pay a certain percentage of an employee’s salary during this time and guarantee employment once the pandemic has passed. How quickly and effectively a nation’s economy recovers from this pandemic may rely on creative strategies implemented now.

Further Reading:

Economic Implications of the Pandemic

The economic effects of the pandemic are many and will likely continue to become evident in months and years to come. It is probable that we will enter a recession, and unlike some prior recessions, this one is abrupt and global. Some overarching themes to understand these effects include a decrease in labor, supply chain disruptions, and a decrease in demand for many consumer goods.

First, there is certainly a decrease in labor. This decrease in labor is exacerbated by poor working conditions, limited worker protection, and decreased compensation, prompting worker strikes as outlined above. Many production centers work at a stable basal rate and are not equipped to operate under conditions that result from a surge in demand, such as that for medical masks. In order to accommodate an increase in demand for one good and a decrease in demand for another, some production centers are able to contribute to the dwindling supply by modifying their efforts, however, this modification is more feasible if the demanded good is easier to produce. Consider distilleries modifying their production lines to produce hand sanitizer, a manufacturing adjustment that is much easier to accommodate than the demand for ventilators, which requires more specialized production.

This issue highlights another shock introduced -- a precipitous decline in demand for many goods, meaning production must halt entirely and, at times, results in the wasting of goods. Decreases in travel and tourism are revealing balances that exist within the supply-demand chain as a result of global interconnectedness (for more details, see the OECD report).

Some have proposed that disruption to the global food system will be the third shock our world experiences from the pandemic, with supply-demand mismatch and resultant hunger possible worldwide. While supermarket sales have increased, demand from restaurants and schools has steeply declined, a shift felt particularly by the seafood industry. Inability to quickly change packaging and distribution practices on US farms has resulted in wasting large volumes of food, all while food insecurity increases. Agriculture and the food industry are not exempt from the same labor shortages experienced in other sectors of the economy, and many workers within the food system face poor working conditions, as described above. Their absence from work not only decreases the availability of food products, but also increases the workers’ own likelihood of becoming food insecure.

The World Bank is working to maintain import/export agreements that typically create stability within the global food market, but this has been complicated by countries that rely on income from other commodities, such as oil, to purchase and import food. Faced with less demand for these other commodities, these countries are less able to import the food they need. While large-scale global supply chains risk disruption, small scale farmers around the world will also lose access to their regular markets. Both large and small scale agriculture and food production take place in predominantly rural settings globally, leaving rural economies with the brunt of this economic burden. In many rural communities in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, farmers are also facing one of the worst locust resurgences in years. Around the world, hunger and alteration in food supply have the potential to impact a number of health problems not otherwise directly related to COVID-19, including nutritional deficiency, growth and development problems, and metabolic diseases such as diabetes.

Structural and political mismanagement of the situation can worsen an economic downturn. These and other economic principles, in addition to GDP trends during other pandemics in history, are reviewed here.

Some economists have called for increased guidance from the federal government in directing industry to produce supplies, as well as a more consolidated response unifying economic and public health responses. Initially, many analyses put these two realms in opposition to one another, implying that either public health or a robust economy must be sacrificed at the others’ expense. However, a panel of top economists overwhelmingly disagrees with this dichotomy, supporting public health measures as tools for economic recovery. A letter to the editor challenges policy makers to think outside of this dichotomy, suggesting that we pursue aggressive testing and precautions that allow our economy and world to return to normal more quickly.

Further Reading:

Thought Questions:

  • What is the role of the federal government in public health and economic responses to COVID?

  • How can public health and economic responses work synergistically?

  • The pandemic has been described as a global phenomenon that has exposed the “Achilles’ heel” of many social and structural shortcomings. What shortcomings have you identified during this pandemic and, if given the chance, how would you propose we address them after the pandemic ends?