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Northeastern study reveals racial disparities in navigating the pandemic

Northeastern University has set up a massive testing and tracing system that has allowed many people to return to campus safely. If front-line workers had access to equally frequent testing, experts say they could be less vulnerable.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Systemic inequality in Boston has forced Black and Latinx residents with lower incomes to expose themselves to the COVID-19 virus at disproportionate rates, a new study from researchers at Northeastern University has found.

Because of disparities in employment, food access, transportation, and physical activity, those in neighborhoods of color and low-income areas suffered greater exposure to the virus than people in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods, the new study found.

Much research has occurred nationwide over the past year about the disproportionate effect of the virus on communities of color and low-income populations. Data from the Centers for Disease Control show the rate of infection among Black and Latinx persons is more than 2.5 times higher than for whites, and the rate of hospitalizations and deaths is also much higher.


Daniel O’Brien, a public policy and urban affairs professor at Northeastern who led the study said the report’s findings should propel public officials and community organizations to realize that the challenges facing different neighborhoods and populations are unique and serve as a road map to ensure that those communities receive additional support during the second wave of the virus.

“Each community got hit differently,” he said. “As we’re looking for the second wave coming up right now, we are going to need targeted solutions.”

The study was a partnership between professors at Northeastern, UMass Boston, and the Boston Public Health Commission. Researchers surveyed approximately 1,600 Bostonians from across the city about their habits in April and in July regarding their ability to follow social distancing guidelines and about the economic and personal damage they suffered.

The report focused on routine activities including commuting to work, accessing food, using public transit, and exercising.

Black and Latinx residents and those with lower incomes were more likely to have to physically go to work, with nearly a third working fully in person in April, compared to fewer than 15 percent of white and Asian respondents, the survey found.


O’Brien said if front-line workers are required to go to work, government officials could set up a testing regimen to help keep them safe.

Northeastern, for example, has set up a massive testing and tracing system that has allowed many people to return to campus safely. If front-line workers had access to equally frequent testing, he said, they could be less vulnerable.

“If we can’t tell people in these sectors, ‘We can help you work from home,’ how do we make working outside the home safer?” he said.

The study also found that lower-income residents took on more risk to access food during the pandemic. While some higher-income residents ordered food or grocery delivery, offloading some of their exposure risk to front-line workers, lower-income people took more trips to the grocery store or food pantry.

O’Brien said lower-income residents may have made more trips to the grocery store because they lacked the funds to buy several weeks’ worth of food at once, or couldn’t carry extra bags home on public transit. Some might not live near a large grocery store and therefore made multiple trips to corner stores.

Setting up food carpools or informal delivery collaboratives among families with fewer resources might help minimize risk, he said.

The study found that very few people reported using public transportation during those early months of the pandemic, but those who did were overwhelmingly from neighborhoods where people of color are the majority, including Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and East Boston.


The study also asked Bostonians about their exercise habits during the pandemic. Researchers found that outdoor exercise was common in majority-white, low-density neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain, but rare in low-income areas where people of color are the majority. While exercise is not a necessity, O’Brien said, this finding could suggest that people in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods had more time and resources to ease the stress of the pandemic than those in lower-income areas.

“I hope that those who are serving those communities are able to glean what the needs of their specific constituency are, because it’s not the same inequity occurring everywhere,” he said.