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New research finds that COVID-19-related discrimination is very common among people belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups, such as Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native, Latino, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander people. Kilito Chan/Getty Images
  • In a survey, people belonging to racially and ethnically minoritized groups, along with other marginalized groups, reported experiencing discrimination based on COVID-19 during the pandemic.
  • The authors of the study that accompanies the survey hypothesized that “both structural racism and the intensification of in-group/out-group perceptions would lead to higher rates of COVID-related discrimination” in these groups, compared with white individuals.
  • The survey respondents reported that others seemed to be afraid of them due to unfounded suspicions regarding infection.
  • The people subject to the most discrimination were Asian, Asian American, and American Indian and Alaska Native individuals.

In the United States, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people in historically marginalized groups compared with white, non-Hispanic U.S. adults. People in such groups have a higher risk of infection, hospitalization, and death due to socioeconomic pressures and inadequate access to healthcare, which are longstanding byproducts of racism and discrimination.

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A survey that researchers conducted for a new study has revealed that many members of minoritized groups are experiencing widespread COVID-19-related discrimination.

The study comes from researchers at the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. According to an NIH press release:

“The survey asked whether participants had experienced COVID-19-related discriminatory behaviors, such as being called names or insulted, being threatened or harassed, or hearing racist comments because the perpetrator thought the participant had COVID-19.”

The study findings appear in the American Journal of Public Health.

The lead author of the study is NIH staff scientist Dr. Paula D. Strassle, who explained to Medical News Today:

“Structural racism is deeply ingrained in the history of our country. It has been relatively well-accepted that economic uncertainty and stress increase racial discord due to (perceived) competition for limited resources.”

“Because of this,” Dr. Strassle continued, “we hypothesized that both structural racism and the intensification of in-group/out-group perceptions would lead to higher rates of COVID-related discrimination among racial/ethnic minority groups compared with white adults, as well as other population groups that have been marginalized — e.g., those with limited English proficiency or lower income — in the U.S.”

Dr. Strassle noted that the survey confirmed the researchers’ expectations but said:

“We were surprised by how common COVID-related discrimination was, particularly among Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native, Latino, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander adults. Our estimates were almost twice as high as prior studies. However, we were not surprised that COVID-related discrimination was occurring among all racial/ethnic minority groups, despite most COVID-related discrimination media being focused on Asian and Asian American communities.”

Prof. Yao Lu of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University, NYC, was not involved in this study but has conducted similar research in the past. She told MNT:

“I am not surprised at the findings. Their findings are consistent with our PNAS paper that COVID-19-associated discrimination has extended beyond East Asians to affect South Asians and Latinos. We also find evidence for increasing xenophobic sentiment triggered by the pandemic. During disease outbreaks, out-groups, especially groups perceived as foreign, are often considered carriers of pathogens.”

Of the people who participated in the survey, 22% reported having experienced COVID-19-related discrimination. All racial/ethnic and other minoritized groups were more likely to have experienced discrimination than white, non-Hispanic people.

Nearly half of the survey respondents, at 42.7%, said that people seemed to be afraid of them.

The groups who reported the highest number of difficult encounters were Asian people and American Indian and Alaska Native people. People identifying as Latino, Pacific Islander, or Hawaiian also experienced a greater amount of discrimination.

The study found that “limited English proficiency, lower education, lower income, and residing in a big city or the East South Central census division also increased the prevalence of discrimination.”

The East South Central census division consists of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

“For our study,” said Dr. Strassle, “we were interested in looking at how common experiences of (perceived) COVID-related discrimination were in the U.S., rather than estimate how many people are exhibiting discriminatory actions toward others. We plan to follow up on our initial analysis by looking at the impact of COVID-related discrimination on mental health and healthcare utilization, as well as other health outcomes during the pandemic.”

The authors of the study write:

“Given these findings, it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated preexisting resentment against racial/ethnic minority groups in the U.S. Future studies and public health efforts focused on COVID-19-related discrimination should explicitly include all major racial/ethnic groups, as most appear to be at equally high risk as Asian adults but have thus far been largely ignored in antidiscrimination efforts.”

Dr. Strassle saw the study as a necessary start, telling MNT:

“While our study was not designed to identify interventions that could decrease discrimination in the U.S., the first step to solving any problem is identifying that the problem exists. Our study, as well as the others which have attempted to measure COVID-related discrimination, have made it clear that it is a major concern for racial/ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups in the U.S.”