BLack and Hispanic Americans continue to be far more cautious about COVID-19, according to recent polls. These differences reflect divergent opinions on how to manage the pandemic when federal, state, and local restrictions are removed.
Public health experts stated that while the majority of Americans support measures such as mask mandates overall, there were differences in opinions between racial groups. This is due to the unbalanced impact of the pandemic not only on those of color but also the apathy of some white Americans.
An April poll by The Associated Press -NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that black Americans (63%) as well as Hispanic Americans (78%), are more likely to feel at least slightly concerned about the possibility of their loved ones being infected.
According to Amelia BurkeGarcia (public health program area director, NORC), during the COVID pandemic, black and Hispanic populations have seen higher levels of disease and death. These experiences resulted is increased anxiety, stress, and awareness of the dangers of COVID-19. People of color will feel that measures such as mask mandates are necessary.
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“We’ve seen these trends endure throughout the entire pandemic,” Burke-Garcia said. “What we’re seeing now as mitigation measures are being rolled back is there’s still great concern amongst Black Americans and Hispanic Americans around the risk of getting sick.”
A poll by AP-NORC shows that majorities of Black Americans and Hispanic Americans worry about their family’s infected status with COVID-19. This is a stark contrast to the findings of fewer than half (50%) of Americans who are white.
70% of Black Americans favor the requirement of wearing face masks on public transportation, including trains and airplanes. That’s more than the 52% of white Americans who support mask mandates for travelers; 29% of white Americans are opposed. Hispanic Americans have 59% who support the mandate, while 20% oppose it. The poll was conducted before a ruling by a federal judge scuttled the government’s mask mandate for travelers.
Tuwanna plant, who is Black, said that Indiana has seen fewer people wear masks out in public, although she claimed she’s been wearing them for years. Plant, who is Black, said she sees people treating the pandemic like it’s over, and she wants the mask mandate to continue.
Plant, 46 year-old sous-chef, stated that she was concerned about receiving the vaccine. Plant also took every precaution to keep herself from getting sick, including cleaning up and masking. But, Plant recently needed COVID-19 treatment.
The experience scared her — she has a preexisting lung condition, and knew family members who died from COVID-19. She indicated that she is going to be vaccinated as soon and as quickly as possible.
“I called my children while I was in the emergency room,” Plant said. “I didn’t know … if it was going to get better or worse, I didn’t know. So it was the experience for me altogether.”
Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist and editor-at-large at Kaiser Health News, said people’s lived experiences deeply shape how they perceive the pandemic. Personal experience and anecdotes have more impact than numbers on people’s behavior, so she stated that those of color are more susceptible to having negative experiences in health care before and after the pandemic.
Although new medications and vaccines make it much easier to manage COVID-19 symptoms, Gounder stated that many still have barriers to getting medical treatment. Some people may lose their job or be unable to work, Gounder said. Others might also face financial hardships if they fall ill.
“When people argue that they don’t have to mask on the plane, that means something very different for someone who has access to all of these new innovations than it does for somebody who has no health insurance, who struggles to care for an elderly parent and their children, who’s maybe a single mom working in a job where she has no paid sick and family medical leave,” Gounder said. “It’s just a completely different calculation.”
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A January AP-NORC survey found that Black Americans and Hispanic Americans felt more strongly than those of white Americans about certain essential things for regaining their lives without being at high risk of infection. For example, 55% of Hispanic Americans and 76% of Black Americans felt that it was important to return to normal. In contrast, 38% of white Americans believe this is not necessary.
A poll by AP-NORC showed that Black Americans and Hispanic Americans (69% and 49% respectively) were more likely to wear a mask when they are around other people than white Americans (35%).
A lower support among white Americans for mandatory masks and other measures may indicate less concern about what happens in communities of colour. A 2021 study on mask wear during the first part of the pandemic revealed that the use of masks by white people was higher when the death rate in their community was greater. The mask use was less when Blacks and Hispanics were dying.
Berkeley Franz was a coauthor on the paper. He said that, in addition to residential segregation, which separates white people and communities of colour, research shows that white people may be ambivalent toward policies they feel most help people of colors.
“Anti-Blackness is really pervasive and has tremendous consequences, both in terms of the policies that get passed, and what doesn’t,” Franz said. “White people can still have really racist actions without seeing themselves that way and understanding the consequences. It’s largely below the surface and unintentional but has tremendous consequences in terms of equity.”
Communities of color also have a different perception of risk from the pandemic than their white counterparts, said Michael Niño, a sociology professor at the University of Arkansas who co-authored a paper on race, gender and masking in the pandemic.
“Masking is something that is relatively cheap, it’s effective, and it’s something that can be easily done,” he said. “It doesn’t require any sort of governmental response. These broader histories of racism and sexism in the United States are most certainly shaping some of the patterns we’re seeing.”
The AP-NORC poll of 1,085 adults was conducted April 14-18 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. For all respondents, the margin of sampling error is +/- 3.9 percentage points.
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