COVID Risk Driven by Pre-Existing Economic and Social Conditions


This time last year, we didn’t know how the novel coronavirus worked or spread. We weren’t sure what put you at a higher risk—touching common surfaces? Standing close to someone? Being inside versus outside?

Since then, research has shown that the virus most commonly spreads through close contact with infected individuals via respiratory droplets. A new study illustrates how this played out in New York City.

The researchers showed that zip codes with higher percentages of people who live in crowded quarters and have high-risk in-person jobs and long commutes are associated with higher infection rates. The results give hard evidence for how COVID-19 affects people differently based on their economic conditions.

The study, by Professor Prabal De (City College,  The Graduate Center) and Taylor Price (Baruch College), is forthcoming in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

The researchers combined data on COVID-19 positive tests and mortality from NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene with economic data from the five-year American Community Survey. They defined overcrowded households as those with more than one person per room, and long commutes as anything over 30 minutes. Jobs in healthcare support, food preparation and serving, personal care, construction, and other “essential worker” occupations were considered high-risk.

Zip codes where more people fell into these categories were more likely to have higher positive test rates. Crowded housing was also associated with higher mortality rates. Given what we know about the virus, this makes sense: Being in close, in-person contact puts you at higher risk, whether it’s at home, at work, or on the subway.

But just because the results aren’t surprising doesn’t mean they aren’t important. They give clear evidence of the connection between community health and economic conditions, showing that even though the virus “doesn’t discriminate,” certain lives are more at risk. “Policymakers should be aware of the spatial differences in vulnerability to exogenous health shocks among the population,” the authors write.


Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Pre-existing Economic Conditions and COVID-19 Infections and Mortality in New York City
Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 2021

Work By

Prabal De (Associate Professor, Economics) | Profile 1 | Profile 2
Taylor Price (Adjunct Professor, Economics) | Profile 1