Reducing socioeconomic disparities could help ‘pandemic-proof’ America

African Americans have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. To prepare for the next pandemic, social scientist David R. Williams argues for creating a new kind of “herd immunity” among disadvantaged populations by changing the social and economic conditions that put them at high risk for disease in the first place.

In a July 9, 2020 interview in Mother Jones, Williams, Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health and chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, listed the many factors that have contributed to the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on African Americans. Many are so-called “essential workers”—such as transit workers, building maintenance staff, and grocery store employees—who have to keep working during the pandemic, so they face higher risk of infection.

In addition, African Americans are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications because they have higher rates of chronic diseases than white Americans. Their poorer health has been spurred by a host of longstanding disparities, said Williams. Many live in segregated neighborhoods where there may be limited access to healthy food, green spaces, health care, job opportunities, and quality housing, which can impact health and increase stress. And their stress is often exacerbated by years of discrimination, he said.

Making investments to reduce socioeconomic disparities—such as investing in pre-K—is key to helping disadvantaged populations fare better when the next infectious disease comes, Williams said. For example, he noted that long-term studies have shown that African American children who went to early childhood programs wound up with higher education levels, higher income, higher rates of marriage, and better health. Said Williams, “If we change the underlying conditions, we will, in fact, dramatically improve health.”

Read the Mother Jones article: By Investing in Pre-K, We Can Create a Generation of Pandemic-Resistant Adults