Trusted research can guide equity-focused policies addressing COVID-19

Following the coronavirus curve has become a part of everyday life. But, it wasn’t until a handful of states and localities began including racial breakdowns in their data that we started to see the full picture of who’s being most affected. In Louisiana, black residents account for 32 percent of the population, but about 56 percent of coronavirus deaths. Analyses show that this tends to be the rule, not the exception. 

We’re both health policy researchers by trade. We work with experts investigating how people’s backgrounds and lived experiences affect their health and well-being. The evidence tells us factors like where a person lives, their race, or how much money they earn can have implications on their opportunity to live a healthy life. The coronavirus data will continue to illuminate these inequities that existed long before this crisis. With evidence in hand, we can use this moment to address both communities’ immediate needs and underlying problems that have persisted for generations.

Those without access to care, low-wage and gig economy workers, communities of color, and those burdened with high housing costs experienced great strains before the virus and are in some of the greatest danger today. Many proven solutions would support them — and these ideas don’t have a shelf life. We can use this crisis to enact more equitable policies that change our society for the better. There’s an abundance of strong data and research decision-makers can turn to as they seek to enact evidence-based policies that support everyone’s health while reducing health disparities. 

Before the pandemic, just 12 states and the District of Columbia had mandatory paid sick leave laws. The research tells us these laws work even outside of a public health emergency. A recent study found these policies cost employers very little, don’t reduce employment or wage growth, and don’t reduce other benefits. 

But, 1 in 4 U.S. workers and close to half of the country’s lowest-wage workers don’t have access to paid sick or family leave. Everyone should be able to stay home to protect themselves and others, but the recently passed emergency federal paid leave laws are inadequate. These policies leave out as many as 6 million people working at the nation’s largest corporations and likely millions more working for small companies or industries that are exempt, like health care. 

Under normal circumstances, more than one-third of all U.S. households, half of black and Latino households, and 3 in 5 homes that have a member with a disability don’t have the money to survive a financial shock. Over 1 in 10 households and almost 1 in 4 black families spend more than half of what they earn on housing. Since coronavirus began spreading, unemployment claims have soared. Millions of people are losing their incomes overnight. 

Economic stimulus checks can help some pay a bit of their April bills, but people need more support to keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads. We need to increase access to jobs that pay a living wage, increase funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and do all we can to make housing more accessible and affordable.

Access to health care was an issue for millions long before coronavirus struck, and many who are losing their jobs during this crisis are also losing their health insurance. This is unacceptable under any circumstances and especially so during a public health emergency. We need to increase funding for community health centers that are on the frontlines, further expand support to Medicaid programs and open a COVID-19 special enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act health care exchanges.

We encourage legislators to continue to turn to the research to enact equitable policies that protect the millions of people facing some of the most significant health, economic, and social challenges of their lifetimes. Resources like the State Health Compare data tool, Urban Institute, State Health and Value Strategies, National Association of County and City Health Officials, and Association of State and Territorial Health Officials provide reliable data and guidance to back-up their work.

This virus will forever change our country. As researchers, we’re wired to turn to the research. As humans, our instinct is to band together in times of crisis. We hope policymakers use this as an opportunity to protect our communities and address inequities — both during this pandemic and for years to come after we recover.

Brian Quinn, Ph.D., associate vice president, and Mona Shah, Ph.D., senior program officer, are with the Research-Evaluation-Learning unit at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health.


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