Customers are served at the Destiny USA mall during the reopening as COVID-19 restrictions are eased in Syracuse, New York, July 10, 2020, photo by Maranie Staab/Reuters

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(The RAND Blog)

How Much Do Americans Value Their Health During the Pandemic?

Customers are served at the Destiny USA mall during the reopening as COVID-19 restrictions are eased in Syracuse, New York, July 10, 2020

Photo by Maranie Staab/Reuters

Are the social and economic costs of physical distancing measures justified by the health benefits of limiting COVID-19 transmission? To better understand how Americans weigh health against other priorities, RAND and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conducted a survey of American health attitudes during COVID-19.

As has been widely reported, the health and economic burdens of COVID-19 have fallen most heavily on poor, non-white populations—those who are more likely to hold jobs that cannot be done remotely, or who live in crowded housing, or who lack access to high-quality health care. We designed our sample to emphasize the perspectives of these populations: 59 percent of respondents identified themselves as non-white, and 44 percent reported an annual income of less than $50,000.[1] The survey was fielded during the summer of 2020 and provides an important first look at the issue of health priorities, liberty, and the economy.

Survey respondents placed a high priority on health, even where it implies limitations to their liberty and to the economy.

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Overall, survey respondents placed a high priority on health, even where it implies limitations to their liberty and to the economy. For instance, only 25 percent somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement, “People's right to move about freely is so important that it's worth risking a substantial increase in coronavirus (COVID-19) infections and deaths.” Similarly, only 26 percent somewhat or strongly agreed that “reopening the economy is so important that it's worth increasing the risk of new coronavirus (COVID-19) infections and deaths.” Slightly fewer (20 percent) somewhat or strongly agreed that “I am willing to risk my own health in order to return to normal life.”

However, there were considerable differences between white and non-white respondents, even in our targeted sample. Non-Hispanic white respondents were more likely to somewhat or strongly agree that “reopening the economy is so important that it's worth increasing the risk of new coronavirus (COVID-19) infections and deaths” than other groups. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Reopening the economy is so important that it's worth increasing the risk of new coronavirus (COVID-19) infections and deaths (percent “agree” or “strongly agree”)

Race/Ethnicity Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree Neither Agree nor Disagree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree
NonHisp White 13.8% 18.2% 15.0% 21.4% 31.6%
NonHisp Black 4.9% 6.3% 13.0% 18.7% 57.1%
Hispanic 7.6% 10.4% 14.2% 22.3% 45.5%
NonHisp Asian 8.1% 14.1% 15.1% 27.5% 35.3%
NonHisp Other 9.4% 15.0% 15.8% 23.5% 36.3%

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

Similarly, non-Hispanic white respondents were more likely than other groups to somewhat or strongly agree that “I am willing to risk my own health in order to return to normal life.” (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2: I am willing to risk my own health in order to return to normal life (percent “agree” or “strongly agree”)

Race/Ethnicity Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree Neither Agree nor Disagree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree
NonHisp White 9.9% 16.2% 14.8% 19.5% 39.7%
NonHisp Black 3.8% 5.1% 12.7% 11.2% 67.3%
Hispanic 5.6% 9.8% 12.9% 17.8% 53.9%
NonHisp Asian 5.1% 7.8% 11.6% 23.5% 52.1%
NonHisp Other 10.5% 10.4% 13.7% 13.2% 52.2%

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

We also found little support for protesting against injustice during the pandemic, with only 17 percent of all respondents somewhat or strongly agreeing that “I think it is worth taking the risk to get coronavirus (COVID-19) to protest injustice, like police brutality.” That said, there were some variations among respondents, with non-Hispanic Black respondents most likely to somewhat or strongly agree. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3: I think it's worth taking the risk to get coronavirus (COVID-19) to protest injustice, like police brutality (percent “agree” or “strongly agree”)

Race/Ethnicity Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree Neither Agree nor Disagree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree
NonHisp White 3.9% 12.8% 20.4% 16.6% 46.3%
NonHisp Black 9.3% 16.0% 24.8% 16.8% 33.2%
Hispanic 4.8% 9.5% 18.3% 16.6% 50.9%
NonHisp Asian 2.3% 13.8% 21.8% 16.7% 45.5%
NonHisp Other 9.3% 12.9% 23.6% 14.0% 40.3%
Total 4.8% 12.6% 20.7% 16.6% 45.4%

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

In spite of the difficulties they face, a strong majority (73 percent) of all respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that “the coronavirus outbreak represents an opportunity for our society to make positive changes,” with similar percentages across all racial groups. (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4: The COVID-19 outbreak can be an opportunity for our society to make positive changes (percent “agree” or “strongly agree”)

Race/Ethnicity Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree Neither Agree nor Disagree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree
NonHisp White 32.8% 39.4% 18.3% 5.1% 4.3%
NonHisp Black 42.7% 31.5% 19.7% 2.6% 3.6%
Hispanic 43.0% 31.9% 15.8% 4.6% 4.8%
NonHisp Asian 35.4% 35.3% 17.2% 5.2% 6.9%
NonHisp Other 37.2% 39.6% 15.8% 1.8% 5.6%

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

In short, most respondents in our sample placed a high priority on health when asked to weigh it against other important priorities such as economic activity and freedom of movement. This finding is perhaps particularly striking given that our largely low-income sample represents those with the most to lose from economic disruptions. Among the relatively small share of respondents who perceive that it is worth taking health risks for the economy or freedom of movement, the motivation differs by race, with non-Hispanic white respondents more likely to be motivated by the economy, but non-Hispanic Black respondents more likely to be motivated by protesting injustice. It is also striking that a large majority see the pandemic as a potential opportunity for change.

We will be fielding this survey at three subsequent points between now and summer 2021—with items that probe more deeply into the specific types of opportunities for change that respondents see emerging in the pandemic. This will also provide an opportunity to track how public opinion responds to another upsurge in cases, and the possibility of additional physical distancing measures.

Footnote

  • [1] We also fielded the survey with a representative sample of all Americans, with findings coming later this year.

Christopher Nelson is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Katherine Carman is a senior economist at RAND and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Anita Chandra is vice president and director, RAND Social and Economic Well-Being and a senior policy researcher at RAND.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.