UC Berkeley academic commentary suggests COVID-19 unequally affects disadvantaged communities

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Joey O. Razon/Philippine News Agency/Creative Commons
An academic commentary by researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health explained how COVID-19 likely unevenly affects individuals in structurally vulnerable neighborhoods. According to Xing Gao, who co-authored the commentary, specific neighborhood conditions are influenced by broader systemic factors, such as racism, colonialism and capitalism. (Photo by Joey O. Razon/Philippine News Agency under CC BY CC0 1.0.)

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In an academic commentary published July, UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers asserted that the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately infected and killed residents of disadvantaged and racially segregated neighborhoods.

According to Eli Michaels, co-author and School of Public Health doctoral student, research commentaries are different from research studies because they are written to synthesize existing literature and further an argument. Exposure, disease development and treatment options are all unevenly influenced by the inequitable distribution of resources across neighborhoods, said Xing Gao, co-author and School of Public Health doctoral student, in an email.

“We wanted to write this piece to identify the role that neighborhood conditions, which are shaped by broader structural factors like racism, colonialism, and capitalism, play in shaping the course of this pandemic,” Gao said in the email.

Rachel Berkowitz, the lead author and School of Public Health postdoctoral researcher, added that the commentary is a “natural extension” of the applied work she and her colleagues have been working on to document the pathways in which neighborhood structure affects health inequities.

Communities of color are more likely to inhabit lower resourced neighborhoods, according to Berkowitz.

“Given that the neighborhoods are not random and people that live in neighborhoods are not random, we see broader implications of these racist structures, and COVID is among them,” Berkowitz said.

The authors defined “structurally vulnerable communities” as neighborhoods that have histories of underfunding that prevented generations of residents from accruing wealth.

Structurally vulnerable communities have higher COVID-19 rates because there are higher rates of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, Berkowitz said. She noted that, for example, neighborhoods without walking spaces or access to healthy food make exercise and healthy diets more difficult to attain, thereby increasing a resident’s likelihood of these illnesses.

According to Berkowitz, chronic stress is also a risk factor that increases COVID-19 infection rates. Structurally vulnerable communities have higher chronic stress rates due to increased police presence and chronic pollution, Berkowitz said.

“Everyone has a right to live and play and grow in a neighborhood where they can thrive,” Berkowitz said. “That is not the case around the world, and that is certainly not the case in this country.”

Policies that can help reduce neighborhood vulnerabilities to COVID-19 are those which strengthen communities, such as “place-based community development,” according to Berkowitz.

Place-based community development partners with residents to transform the neighborhood while avoiding gentrification, a process in which residents are displaced by newcomers, Berkowitz said.

Denise Herd, professor at the School of Public Health, added that many essential jobs have modest incomes and increase worker exposure to COVID-19. According to Michaels, the government should increase support for essential workers so they have the option to leave the workforce.

Berkowitz said there are going to be more pandemics in the future, due in part to climate change.

“COVID is just the latest manifestation of a much bigger structural issue of racism,” Michaels said. “If we don’t deal with structural racism, then whatever comes after COVID will show the same pattern.”

Eric Rogers is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @eric_rogers_dc.

A previous version of this article’s photo caption may have implied that the authors conducted research on this topic. In fact, they wrote an academic commentary.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Denise Herd is an associate professor in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. In fact, she is a professor in the School of Public Health.
A previous version of this article’s headline incorrectly conveyed that its subject was a research study. In fact, it was an academic commentary.