fbpx The Great Unequalizer: Initial Health Effects of COVID-19 in the United States | Harvard Kennedy School

HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Ethel Zimmerman Wiener Professor of Public Policy, HKS; Henry and Allison McCance Professor of Business Administration, HBS


We measure inequities from the COVID-19 pandemic on mortality and hospitalizations in the United States during the early months of the outbreak. We discuss challenges in measuring health outcomes and health inequality, some of which are specific to COVID-19 and others that complicate attribution during most large health shocks. As in past epidemics, pre-existing biological and social vulnerabilities profoundly influenced the distribution of disease. In addition to the elderly, Hispanic, Black and Native American communities were disproportionately affected by the virus, particularly when assessed using the years of potential life lost metric. For example, Hispanic and Black Americans in 2020 saw 39.5 and 25 percent increases in excess mortality relative to trend, compared to a less than 15 percent increase for Whites; we find losses in potential years of life three to four times larger among Hispanic and Black compared to White Americans. Individual-level data from a commercially insured population show that otherwise similar Black and Hispanic enrollees were hospitalized due to COVID-19 at a higher rate than White enrollees. We provide a conceptual framework and initial empirical analysis which seek to shed light on contributors to pandemic-related health inequality, and suggest areas for future research.


Alsan, Marcella, Amitabh Chandra, and Kosali I. Simon. "The Great Unequalizer: Initial Health Effects of COVID-19 in the United States." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP21-019, July 2021.