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Blog Post

Rethinking the Impact of the Lockdowns


July 12, 2023

We are only beginning to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic and the implications of the lockdowns that forced people to stay home. It is an endeavor that will take years to flesh out. 

Eszter Hargittai’s Connected in Isolation  is one of the first large-scale attempts to do just that and looks at how the United States managed the pandemic vis-à-vis Italy and Switzerland. Across all three nations, Hargittai found some common threads with the internet serving as a lifeline for people “ suddenly relying on it for the most essential of daily needs .” And, unsurprisingly, Harigittai found that better-educated and wealthier individuals gained more and had a far easier time navigating and succeeding within this newly emphasized ecosystem.

Hargittai’s work demonstrates the impact of “societal positions” and resources on outcomes during the lockdowns, but the book notably failed to discuss how race and ethnicity played a role in managing the shutdowns and reacting to the significant socio-economic and spatial changes that COVID-19 brought to communities around the globe. This omission is worth mentioning because a prevailing narrative in the United States during the pandemic was that racial and ethnic minorities were being impacted far more harshly than whites; it was argued that racial and ethnic minorities bore a disproportionate mental health burden during the COVID-19 pandemic and non-whites were generally far more isolated , lonely, and depressed than whites. 

Unsurprisingly, a plethora of policy decisions and critical resources were allocated with this understanding. Data from AEI’s COVID-19 and American Life Survey of over 3,500 adults fielded in the late spring of 2020 during the lockdowns suggests that some of these racial divides are severely overstated.

Consider socialization patterns as social distancing entered the nation’s lexicon and face-to-face interactions became rare. The survey asked respondents if, in the past week, they had a video call with friends or family. In total, about 60% of Americans had a video call with either friends or family. Seventy-two percent of those with a post-graduate degree and 67% with a bachelor’s degree reported chatting with friends and family. As education declines, so too did the number of people who responded in the affirmative. Fifty-seven percent of those with some college and 53% of those with a high school degree or less reported talking with family or friends.

Looking at income, a similar pattern occurred. Seventy-two percent of those earning $100,000 or more reported calling friends or family. Fifty-eight percent of those making between $40,000 and $90,000, and 54% of those making under $30,000 reported calling friends or family.

The narrative gets flipped on its head when looking at race. Sixty-eight percent of blacks, 67% of Hispanics, and 71% of Asians reported having a video call with family or friends. Only 55% of whites reported the same.

Moreover, the AEI data challenge the many headlines declaring that minorities had higher rates of anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked about feeling lonely or isolated, whites were actually slightly more likely to state that they felt lonely a few times a week or more—36%—compared to 34%of blacks. Forty-one percent of Hispanics and 38% of Asians reported feeling the same way. Similarly, when asked about feeling depressed, whites had higher self-reported levels of regular depression (36%) compared to blacks (31%). Hispanic respondents were higher again at 41% with Asians notably lower at 23%. During the lockdowns, there were non-trivial percentages of the population understandably dealing with real mental health issues related to depression and isolation, but at no point were there orders of magnitude differences between blacks and whites who were all dealing with the consequences of the lockdowns.

Without question, racial disparities exist in the United States which intersect with factors like education, family structure, and even neighborhood and community structure. The pandemic exposed even more. But, the impact of race on outcomes by itself is often dangerously overstated with those on the Left regularly alleging negative, harmful consequences for non-whites as a default and without sufficient evidence.

The global pandemic lockdowns are a perfect example of this misstep and it turns out that non-whites were more likely than whites to connect with friends and family digitally during the lockdowns despite stories to the contrary. And, relatedly, levels of depression and isolations were remarkably similar across the population regardless of racial and ethnic groups. None of this is to suggest that many Americans were not isolated and disconnected from others, but it is time to look at what really drove the differences and reduce the narratives that suggest the disparities are a result of one’s race and ethnicity with other factors ignored and relegated to the background; we as a nation are more than that.