Survey reveals racial, political differences in response to COVID health measures

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A new study suggests that Black Michigan residents are more likely than white conservatives to adhere to COVID-19-related public health standards.  

Conducted by Michigan State University and published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, it included a group of 800 Michigan adults.

“Our findings suggest that although COVID impacts all Michiganders, reactions to COVID are politicized,” said Zachary Neal, MSU associate professor of psychology and study co-author. “This is significant because if people base their response to COVID on politics rather than science, they may be placing themselves at risk.” 

Additionally, Michigan residents’ race, according to the findings, impacted how much politics affected their views of COVID-19.

“When COVID was politicized, partisanship mattered more to white Michiganders than it did to Black Michiganders,” Neal said. “This is significant because it could mean that white Michiganders are more likely to misjudge COVID risks due to politics. For example, although Black Michiganders on average said they would comply with stay-at-home orders, only the more liberal white Michiganders said they would comply.”

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In considering political ideology, the findings reveal that conservative whites were more likely to have noncompliance attitudes toward local and state COVID orders than more liberal white people and Black people who tend toward compliance.

Overall, Black Michiganders’ attitudes toward the pandemic were more in line with public health recommendations around mask wearing and stay-home orders than views held by their white counterparts. Researchers point to a long history of health, social and economic disparities as the driving force. They found that Black Michiganders were more likely to contract COVID-19 or lose their job as a result of COVID-19 and thereby more likely to comply with regulations.

“Black Americans experience a disproportionately greater rate of preexisting conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes, that place them at an elevated COVID risk,” said Kaston Anderson-Carpenter, MSU assistant professor of psychology and study lead author. “Since social determinants of health adversely impact Black Michiganders, adhering to the restrictions may also be perceived as a preventive health measure. Black people who work in essential jobs may also care for family members who have preexisting conditions, which may also influence their adherence to COVID restrictions.” 

In April, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Michigan Coronavirus Racial Disparities Task Force. It is chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, an African American who said in December that he had lost 24 people in his life due to the virus. The task force’s interim report released in December detailed a number of actions the state has taken to protect communities of color, frontline workers, and small businesses from the spread of COVID-19. Across the pandemic, “the cumulative COVID-19 case rate in Black and African-American populations has been over 40% higher than the rate in White populations,” a portion of the reports reads. 

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Beyond the politicization of the virus, Anderson-Carpenter and Neal’s paper reinforces the national conversation about Black people being disproportionately affected by the virus.

“Very little has happened between May and now to reduce racial disparities or political divisions; if anything, both are now worse than before,” Neal said. “Knowing now what was happening then — and, now that we’re experiencing another surge in cases — more resources need to go to the Black communities to address both the health and economic impacts of COVID, particularly now that vaccines are available.”

By highlighting the impact of partisan perceptions, the researchers hope their study stresses the extensive disparities related to COVID health care and encourages public health officials to focus on providing assistance to Black communities.

“It is imperative to understand how COVID has been politicized in Michigan as a microcosm of the nation, and we hope the study encourages politicians to make COVID a nonpartisan issue,” Anderson-Carpenter said.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.