White people were more likely to ignore safety precautions like wearing masks and social distancing during the pandemic when they realized the various and disproportionate ways COVID-19 affected African Americans.
Psychologists at the University of Georgia’s Department of Social Science & Medicine made those conclusions following an in-depth study of racial disparities during the pandemic.
“When white people in the U.S. were more aware of racial disparities in COVID-19, they were less fearful of COVID-19,” said Allison Skinner-Dorkenoo, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and co-author of the study.
“We found evidence of less empathy for people who are vulnerable to COVID-19, and we also found evidence of reduced support for safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Skinner-Dorkenoo noted that the study revealed that white people mostly showed less concern about COVID and its impact when they believe it is “not a white people problem.”
According to an earlier study by the Black Coalition Against COVID, the Yale School of Medicine, and the Morehouse School of Medicine, African Americans struggled more than most during the pandemic.
In the first three months, the study authors wrote that the average weekly case rate per 100,000 Black Americans was 36.2, compared with 12.5 for white Americans.
In addition, the Black hospitalization rate was 12.6 per 100,000 people, compared with 4 per 100,000 for white people, and the death rate was also higher: 3.6 per 100,000 compared with 1.8 per 100,000.
“The severity of COVID-19 among Black Americans was the predictable result of structural and societal realities, not differences in genetic predisposition,” the authors stated.
When the University of Georgia report authors looked at social comparisons and construal level theory, they made additional conclusions.
Although the elevated rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality among people of color in the U.S. do not objectively reduce the risks of infection among white people, they may reduce perceptions of risk by serving as a source of downward comparison, the authors said.
“When people compare themselves to others who are less well off, they feel more satisfied with their current situation,” the authors asserted.
“When confronted with threatening health concerns, people often spontaneously engage in downward comparisons as a means of coping, which has been shown to reduce engagement in health-protective behaviors. Therefore, news stories about COVID-19 racial disparities may facilitate downward comparison among White U.S. residents, reducing the perceived threat of the virus and endorsement of safety precautions.”
They added that awareness of COVID-19 racial disparities could also influence how psychologically distant white U.S. residents feel from COVID-19.
“According to construal level theory, when people and things are more psychologically distant from us socially, in time, or in space, they seem more abstract and less concerning,” the authors concluded.
The authors conceded that information about COVID-19 racial disparities might not have the same effect on all white U.S. residents.
They noted that previous research had revealed that U.S. residents who are more knowledgeable about past racial injustices tend to be more aware of and concerned about systemic inequalities and racism in the present.
“These findings suggest that White U.S. residents who are more knowledgeable about the systemic and structural inequalities that led people of color to be harder hit by COVID-19 may also be more concerned about COVID-19 racial disparities,” the authors wrote.
“This line of thinking suggests that systemic knowledge of contributors to COVID-19 racial disparities would be associated with greater concern about COVID-19 and increased support for safety precautions.”