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Partisan Differences in Perceptions of Health Disparities in COVID-19

It is now abundantly clear that Republicans and Democrats have divergent views about COVID-19 – as evidenced by partisan gaps in attitudes, beliefs, and even behaviors, like wearing masks or getting a vaccine. Research has also demonstrated that people perceive the concept of health equity through the lens of partisanship. In a new study published as part of a special issue about health policy and polarization in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, members of our COMM team presented 2023 survey data on public perceptions of health equity issues and discussed the implications of these findings for the future politics of public health.

Consistent with our team’s three previous surveys, we found a gap between Republicans and Democrats in their agreement that there are COVID-19 mortality disparities by race (Black versus White) or income (higher versus lower income) exist, but no such partisan differences for mortality differences based on age or chronic illness status (see Figure). Democrats were consistently more likely to agree that these disparities exist, as well as for other long-standing disparity groups, including Latinos and Native Americans compared to White Americans. The most commonly provided causal explanation for racial disparities was differences in access to health care, regardless of partisanship, but individual-level causes (such as beliefs about health or personal choices) were more often identified by Republicans (64%) compared to Democrats (35%). Few (30%) agreed that systemic racism is a cause of health inequities, and again we saw differences across partisan groups in recognition of systemic racism. Overall, a slim majority (53%) supports the authority of public health departments to reduce the spread of infectious disease, again more among Democrats (75%) than Republicans (39%) or Independents (35%). Those who recognized racial disparities in COVID-19 were more likely to support states’ authority to act. 

For public health professionals and others who believe that health equity and the future protection of the public’s health should be future priorities, these data are sobering. The findings suggest that only a modest proportion of the public recognizes racial disparities in health outcomes or racism as the root cause of these disparities, facts which most in public health now recognize as central. These findings support our COMM team’s ongoing work to establish effective communication strategies to explain the existence of and causes of racial disparities, as well as strategies to address them. We conclude the article by arguing that we need new evidence about how to “depolarize” public health concepts as part of a broader preparedness strategy to build back public trust in science and support for public health authority. As we note in the paper: “While public health has always been political, interventions are needed to disrupt the persistent attachment of Democratic political affiliation with support for public health.” 

Read more relevant work from the COMM team:

The journal article discussed here is published as an advance view “Early Publication”. The final release of the issue will be in late May. Support for this research was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (grant #79754). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

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