The Myth of COVID-19 as the "Great Equalizer"

Researchers quantify the differential effects of COVID-19 on academics.

Posted Aug 03, 2020

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) designated COVID-19 a pandemic, there has been a great deal of attention about how such public health crises are “blind” to demographics such as gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Politicians such as Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York talked about COVID-19 as an “equalizer”. The idea behind this rhetoric was to emphasize that no one was “safe” from COVID-19, even those who have privilege, power, and prestige.

However, many outlets were quick to criticize this idea and pointed out that pandemics often worsen pre-existing health inequalities. Data from New York underscored this point, as predominantly Hispanic and Black neighborhoods experienced higher rates of both infections and mortality compared to neighborhoods that were largely White. Data from Michigan painted a similar picture, with both cases and mortality rates being higher among Blacks compared with Caucasians.

More recently, attention has turned to the disparate effects of COVID-19 between genders, particularly among academics. In a July 2020 article, researchers contacted scientists in both the US and Europe to ask them about the effects of COVID-19 on their productivity. Potential participants were contacted from a range of academic institutions, disciplines, and career stages. Overall, the 4,535 respondents reported decreased hours spent working (from an average of 61 hours per week prior to the pandemic to an average of 54 hours during the pandemic).

However, decreases in productivity were not equal among respondents. Many factors played a role in how scientists’ productivity was affected by the pandemic, including the field of study, and the type of productivity being asked about. Researchers found that scientists in fields of study that require access to physical equipment (e.g. biochemistry), experienced a larger drop in research productivity compared with scientists in fields where access to physical equipment is not required (e.g. economics). Responses also differed depending on what type of productivity scientists were asked about. The amount of time that scientists were able to dedicate to research was the most adversely affected by the pandemic, whereas other activities (such as administrative duties) were less impacted.

Importantly, the strongest predictors of how much a given respondents' research was impacted by the pandemic were neither type of work being asked about nor field of study. Rather, the best way to explain changes in how much time an individual can spend on research pre- versus post-COVID-19 appears to be gender and whether or not the individual has a young dependent (e.g. a child). The survey found that when all other factors were accounted for, female scientists reported a 5 percent larger decline in how much time they were able to spend on research during COVID-19 compared with their male counterparts.

Whether or not scientists report having young children appears to have an even larger impact than that of gender. When all other factors were accounted for, scientists who reported having at least one child aged 5 or younger had a 17 percent larger decrease in time dedicated to research compared with those without a young child. Further, these effects appear additive—having multiple young children was associated with another 3 percent decrease in research time. Though scientists with slightly older children (aged 6-10) were also negatively impacted, it was less pronounced than for those with young children. The effects of gender and having children are likely related, as some of the differences in productivity between gender appeared attributable to female scientists being more likely to have young children.

Taken together, it is clear that COVID-19 is not an “equalizer”, as different groups are differentially impacted. In academia, these findings point to the importance of university-wide policies that recognize the negative impact that this public health crisis is having on research productivity, particularly for women and those with young children.

References

Mein S. A. (2020). COVID-19 and Health Disparities: the Reality of "the Great Equalizer". Journal of general internal medicine, 1–2. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-020-05880-5

Myers, K.R., Tham, W.Y., Yin, Y. et al. Unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientists. Nat Hum Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0921-y