With more than 30 million people infected and 550,000 dead, the US is among the nations hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. From job loss to housing insecurity to mental distress, the social, psychological and economic hardships brought on by the pandemic are extensive and likely to outlast the pandemic itself.
To better understand the breadth and depth of the pandemic’s impact on American lives, I worked with colleagues at the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research to develop an index of “pandemic misery. ”We found that though few US residents have survived the pandemic unscathed, hardship isn’t equally distributed across groups. Just how bad it was: 80 per cent experienced a hardship”
The US Pandemic Misery Index uses data we have collected through the Understanding Coronavirus in America Study, the only nationally representative survey since the start of the pandemic tracking its impact on US residents. This internet-based panel of about 6,000 adults aimed to quantify the serious hardships people have experienced over the course of the pandemic, and to assess the distribution of those experiences across the US adult population.
The index draws on nine indicators of pandemic-related hardship: financial insecurity, food insecurity, symptoms of moderate or severe psychological distress, symptoms of high stress, job loss since March 2020, experience of COVID-19-based discrimination, missing a housing payment, being put in isolation or quarantine, and a COVID-19 diagnosis or perceived COVID-19 infection.
Blacks and Latinos more likely to know someone who died
The pandemic exacerbated racial and ethnic disparities in health and financial security. According to our index, racial and ethnic disparities appear largely unchanged a year into the pandemic.
While most US adults have suffered in some way as a result of the pandemic, Latino and Black residents have clearly been hit the hardest. Almost 9 in 10 Latinos (89 per cent) and 86 per cent of Black people have faced at least one serious hardship since the start of the pandemic, compared to 80 per cent of Asians and 76 per cent of whites.
Furthermore, despite a decline in the prevalence of hardship across racial and ethnic groups, Latino and Black residents continue to face hardship at a higher rate than white and Asian residents. For example, 63 per cent of Latino residents reported one or more hardships compared to 46 per cent of white residents in April 2020, a 27 percentage point gap. This gap persisted in March 2021 at 24 percentage points, with 34 per cent of Latinos and 26 per cent of whites reporting one or more hardships.
The disparity between Asians and whites has largely disappeared over the course of the pandemic due to a marked decline in the prevalence of hardship among Asians. While 50 per cent of Asians reported one or more hardships in April 2020, 23 per cent reported a hardship in March 2021.
Asians were also much less likely to report a COVID-19 infection themselves or in their social circle. Since April 2020, 61 per cent of Asians reported knowing at least one person infected with COVID-19, compared to 78 per cent of Latinos, 77 per cent of whites and 70 per cent of Blacks. Nonetheless, Asians have experienced COVID-19-based discrimination – that is, mistreatment due to others thinking they might be infected with COVID-19 – at a higher rate than other racial or ethnic groups.
Additionally, we see large racial and ethnic disparities in the share of US adults who have suffered the loss of someone due to COVID-19. Blacks and Latinos are nearly twice as likely as whites and nearly three times as likely as Asians to report a friend or family member dying due to COVID-19 since April 2020.
Recovery will require sustained social and government support
While the share of US adults experiencing serious hardships has declined markedly – from 5 in 10 during the early days of the pandemic to slightly less than 3 in 10 in late March 2021 – a key takeaway from our index is that many continue to face social, psychological and economic distress. More than 2 in 10 US adults, or 23 per cent, reported experiencing financial insecurity, 7 per cent reported food insecurity and 6 per cent reported missing a housing payment as recently as late March 2021.
The burden of pandemic misery also continues to fall disproportionately on communities of colour. While our index shows that the gap has narrowed between whites and Asians, Latino and Black people continue to face hardship at higher rates and will likely face a more difficult path to recovery from the pandemic.
Altogether, these findings underscore the multidimensional nature of the pandemic’s impact on people’s lives. For many Americans, especially Black and Latino Americans, the path to pandemic recovery will require more than a vaccine appointment or a one-off stimulus check. It will require sustained financial assistance, food and housing assistance, and mental health support.