Collaborative Endeavors

Deadly Disparities in the time of COVID-19: Behind the Report

Episode Summary

Early in the pandemic, Claire Decoteau, Iván Arenas their robust team of interdisciplinary researchers began to interview Black, Latinx, and white residents of three Chicago neighborhoods in order to explore how the pandemic has impacted different communities. Drawing on over 150 interviews with residents and policy makers, the team found that while COVID-19 has been treated as a health crisis at the federal, state, and local levels, city residents experienced it as a much broader crisis related to housing, jobs, childcare, schooling, and healthcare.

Episode Notes


Claire Decoteau, PhD
Professor, Department of Sociology
College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
University of Illinois Chicago

Iván Arenas
Associate Director
Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy
University of Illinois at Chicago


“Deadly Disparities in the time of COVID-19: How Public Policy Fails Black and Latinx Chicagoans,” December 2021
View panel discussions from 12/01/2021 and 12/09/2021

UIC Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy


If you would like to see your interdisciplinary team featured on the podcast, reach out to me at

Interested in volunteering to participate in health research? Today’s researchers want to make sure that treatments and cures are designed for everyone’s unique needs. Are you ready to make a difference? Learn more at

The University of Illinois Chicago Center for Clinical and Translational Science is supported by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health, through Grant UL1TR002003. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


Episode Transcription

0:00     Claire Decoteau

The thing that people say is that we don't feel listened to at all. Even though the city took a very community-based approach to racial equity, it’s not being felt by people and they don't feel like their experiences are being reflected by the policies.

0:16     Voice Over (VO)

Welcome to Collaborative Endeavors, a podcast about how scientists from different areas of research come together to tackle big health challenges, leading to better therapies and healthier communities.

In this episode, we meet Claire Decoteau, a professor of sociology at UIC who has studied several epidemics over her career. We also meet Iván Arenas, a cultural anthropologist and architect who serves as associate director at UIC’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy. His research focuses on how social movements use creative art practices to establish solidarities beyond the state. 

Early in the pandemic, Dr. Decoteau, Dr. Arenas their robust team of interdisciplinary researchers began to interview Black, Latinx, and white residents of three Chicago neighborhoods in order to explore how the pandemic has impacted different communities. Drawing on over 150 interviews with residents and policy makers, the team found that while COVID-19 has been treated as a health crisis at the federal, state, and local levels, city residents experienced it as a much broader crisis related to housing, jobs, childcare, schooling, and healthcare.

01:26    Ivan Arenas

We take an approach in this country wherein the problems are addressed sort of at the end point when people have acute need as opposed to really thinking about root causes and root solutions that might actually help support people before they get to the crisis mode. And a pandemic is clearly a crisis, but the crisis in housing and healthcare and education is pretty acute already in many of the most vulnerable communities in Chicago we aren't attending to on a day-to-day level. It took the pandemic to really create the policies that might start to attend to that. But they really were kind of after-the-fact, as opposed to being more proactive and engaging with the problem to begin with.

02:10    Claire

I do think that public health experts have really taken the lead in terms of designing policies to mitigate the effects of COVID, especially on vulnerable populations, and I think that one of the good things about that is that public health experts really come from a discipline that recognizes the social determinants of health. So, by that, we mean things beyond just their health status, so things like people’s economic conditions their financial status, the environment that they live in, the neighborhood and whether their neighborhood has healthy grocery stores and access to hospitals, and things like that. So the social determinants of health are obviously super important for understanding broader vulnerabilities that then make people more susceptible to COVID and worse effects of COVID-19. 

I think that having public health experts sort of at the helm of policy development for COVID in particular has really led to a leading with data approach. Which in some ways is really fabulous because Chicago in particular really took the lead on kind of making sure that we had data on racial and ethnic inequalities in the city and was really thinking in a in a great way about how having the numbers on the way that COVID-19 was unevenly impacting racially marginalized citizens was important to note. Right? It's important to gather that data. But I do think that the city ended up investing really heavily in its data infrastructure. And in some ways that investment actually took away from their capacity to invest more in social service provision. 

04:00    VO

Drs. Decoteau and Arenas talked about the early days of the project and how they drew upon the skills within the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy – referred to as IRRPP – to not only tap into interdisciplinary research perspectives but to connect with the individuals and community-based organizations operating on the frontlines every day.

04:22    Ivan

IRRPP has been publishing state of racial issues reports like this since 2017. And the Institute has been researching racial inequities since the 1990s when it was constituted. The report did come to life as a kind of organic response to pandemic, but it is also true that it's critically informed by those decades of understanding about the long-term pandemics of housing instability, right? Health gaps, lack of employment opportunity, under resourced education, the over-policing that are realities for the Latinx and Black communities of Chicago before COVID-19 came along. 

04:58    Claire 

So Amanda Lewis, who's the director at IRRPP, she really kind of focused in right at the beginning. Pretty early on into the pandemic they put out a call for folks who might be interested in doing research on the social consequences of the pandemic. Especially on sort of untangling what was very obvious very early on, which was the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on racial minorities in the city of Chicago. And so the initial sort of broad call dwindled down a little bit to folks who are really committed to doing what turned out to be this sort of project that looked at both the policy response and did interviews with policymakers and state actors and epidemiologists and with residents in the three neighborhoods that we chose, which was Albany Park and Little Village and Austin. And so we also worked with three different research assistants from different disciplinary backgrounds, who were amazing and took a tremendous amount of work to really address kind of grounded problems that we were having, for example, with recruitment because doing interviews over the phone is really trying and we were aware of some barriers anyway. So they just were great at troubleshooting some of the difficulties we faced. And then, we also brought on a huge team of undergrads over the course of a year and half to help with translation and transcription and summarizing and coding. And then Ivan worked with a team of folks at IRRPP including Chris Poulos and Deana Lewis to do sort of a kind of analysis and graphics that brought in these broader patterns that we see in the report as well.

06:40    Ivan

And I would say that an important guiding principle for projects like this at IRRPP is that, for us, a multidisciplinary team meant not only engaging with a broad team of academic researchers, but also working with individuals and community-based organizations that are doing work on the ground and who really know the needs and the ways to meet those needs for our most impacted communities. And, you know, part of a challenge of that is that working with community scholars, working with practitioners on the ground, they’re often under resourced. They're overworked and university projects are one of the reasons that those communities can be overworked. And so we have to take a great deal of care to do the kind of engaged research that is not extractive and feeds off the generosity and the kind of wealth of resources and knowledge and vulnerable communities, but they can work in relation to and in solidarity with those communities to address their needs and to amplify their voice. And, you know, we know as that living up to this is the struggle for even the most well-meaning of researchers because the university systems are not necessarily set up to encourage the kind of engaged research that this takes. 

So the people we interviewed with for this project, you know, they are very aware and articulated very clearly the healthcare challenges they are facing but also employment challenges, housing challenges, childcare challenges, and so on. And what becomes evident to us is that the interrelated character of those challenges, it's not invisible to researchers, but our scholarly perspectives are often narrowly focused due to our disciplinary training or due to the kind of demands towards specialization that academia fosters. And so, having an interdisciplinary team allowed us to break those silos open and to better engage with the interrelated dynamics of inequity. And that's true not just for this project, but more broadly, right? Multidisciplinary teams are better positioned to identify the tangled roots of racial inequities and therefore also to maybe parse out what are some policies that can offer solutions.

08:45    VO

Dr. Decoteau walked me through the study’s findings. If you are interested in reading the full report, which I highly recommend, you can find a link in the show notes.

08:56    Claire

So the puzzle that the report seeks to address is, you know, there were tons and tons of resources that were really made available through CARES Act funding and then ARPA. And, of course, there were different legislations along the way that provided different sets of funding. So there were huge amounts of federal, state and local funding and resources that were meant to redress the health and racial disparities that were associated with the pandemic. And yet the city of Chicago really took that on with incredible intensity, they really took it on as a core value to approach the pandemic with the racial equity lens. And so our question is- given all of that- why is it that those who are already vulnerable prior to the pandemic- those who are marginalized were the ones who not only felt the brunt of hospitalizations and death but also didn't necessarily receive the resources in the way that would have helped them most. 

And we have answers as to why this is, so I'll just go through them extraordinarily quickly. So the first is that large structural problem, right? So decades of discriminatory policies on housing, health care and social security, as well as kind of broader disinvestment in poor communities. Lower-income Chicagoans didn’t have a safety net to rely on during the pandemic and so they didn't have existing financial cushions. Like many of them couldn't stay home, they had front facing jobs. And so that's one of the reasons why they face the biggest vulnerabilities despite the resources that were being kind of funneled into the city. 

The second is that COVID-19 was really treated primarily as a health crisis. And so a ton of the funding, of course, went to public health and public health responses, but many residents that we interviewed really experienced the pandemic as a much bigger crisis that was associated with housing, food, employment and childcare insecurity. And so we found that a huge lack that the financial and housing security really needed to be prioritized from the outset in order to redress the vulnerabilities that we ended up seeing. 

Number three was just that the COVID-19 response really prioritized middle-class Americans and the protection of the economy over keeping the vulnerable safe. So, in many ways, middle-class Americans were able to stay home and stay safe because more working-class people continued to work in factories and shipping and meatpacking and agriculture.

And then fourth, there were a lot of problems with the way that social assistance was made available during the pandemic. So I already mentioned how housing should have been prioritized at the outset instead of sort of waiting for people to experience housing insecurity and then initiating rental assistance programs. But also even once rental assistance and financial assistance became available, they often had so many bureaucratic requirements attached to them that people really struggled to access them. And so the numbers are pretty astounding in terms of the level of need for rental assistance versus the number of applications that have actually been approved and paid out. And so I just think that speaks to this real lack in the way that social assistance was made available. 

12:17    VO

Dr. Arenas elaborated

12:18    Ivan

An interrelated challenge that we saw through the course of this research on the disparities in relation to COVID-19 in Chicago is that there was a general disconnect in the chain of care between those who are making those health policies or making other public policies and how they're implemented at the neighborhood level. So we looked at our research in Austin, Albany Park and Little Village, and in those three communities we continually heard in interviews that people didn't know where to go for testing in their neighborhood, they didn't know who to reach out to about rental assistance, they didn't know where to go to deal with related issues of public policies. And so we need to take care of the systemic barriers that exist not just in that chain of care in relation to health. But also in relation to housing, education, employment, transportation, and so on. And until we do, the people in those most vulnerable neighborhoods are going to continue to suffer despite the dollar amount in the millions that may be distributed and despite policies that are meant to address the needs of those vulnerable populations. 

13:35    Claire

The thing that people say is that we don't feel listened to at all. Even though the city took a very community-based approach to racial equity, it’s not being felt by people and they don't feel like their experiences are being reflected by the policies. I just think that literally talking to people on the ground about their experiences reveals so much about not only the barriers but also what works and what has been really successful and what has not been successful and where the gaps are.

13:54    VO

Dr. Arenas outlined what we can do to remedy this situation and better position ourselves for future emergencies at the local and national level.

14:05    Ivan

Clearly, there are some important implications for what we can do as a city and nation going forward. First and foremost, we would want to put in place practice policies to address the root causes of racial inequities rather than kind of reactive social assistance programs that we often get that largely are acting as a form of triage. So that would be, you know, one important thing that we can do as a city. Another thing, though, that I would also suggest is that we end the report by talking about how despite the pervasive or persistent or consequential racial inequity and the challenges that those produce, we did see that the through the pandemic that Chicago's residents, do show up for each other and that our community-based organizations remain a kind of bulwark for those that most need it. And so that really does give us hope for the future, but we also know that that hope has to be nurtured by policies that prioritize the needs of those vulnerable families and importantly, the then end up funding community-based organizations on the frontline struggle for greater racial equity. So we would want to also create effective mechanisms, effective processes for community-based organizations who would be the ones that also are driving policymaking to be the ones that are controlling the power of the purse. And we think that that would also better ensure that Chicago can be a city that works for all and not just for those that were fortunate enough to have the financial means to have the kind of accumulated wealth that one would need to storms such as COVID-19.

15:36    VO

Throughout our conversation, Drs. Decoteau and Arenas stressed the importance of community engaged research and creating space within our academic settings to allow researchers to learn how to collaborate with community-based organizations in a meaningful, symbiotic away.

15:55    Ivan

I guess what I would say from my own experience and from what I've seen at UIC, is that in doing that community work there are new avenues for collaboration both with other scholars at UIC- and even at other universities- that can open up to people in government, philanthropy, the business community etcetera. And that kind of interdisciplinary work that's grounded in community will also sharpen our research theses and analyses. There is a lot of theory making that comes out through that work itself. I think there is an academic benefit as well as a kind of moral or social argument for engaged interdisciplinary research. And, you know, no matter what the size of a grant, as researchers we do have access to resources, to power, and to privileges that can be leveraged in the service of community work. But I think the starting point should be that work itself. Scholars should seek out in a community an organization who they feel is doing good work, get involved, and, you know, find research avenues through that. I think that that is something I've seen over the years here at UIC happen very effectively. And at the same time, as it is something that more and more researchers do, it becomes easier and easier to do that at the university, and to ask for further resources and time to nurture those relationships, because this work is much longer, much harder, but also much more consequential I would add.

17:19    Claire

I think some of the organizations that we engage with and spoke to and have kind of partnered with through this project, a lot of them have done their own needs assessments in their communities and have done, sort of a version of popular epidemiology on the ground. And I think that some of those groups have just found tremendous results from that kind of grounded, you know, asking folks what they need from their community. And I think the basis for their establishment of mutual aid funds and money to push back against policy comes from that sort of knowledge of their own community. And in some ways, you know, public health folks, social scientists can really help people in those ways with gathering the data that would be most useful to communities about themselves to push policy forward. 

18:08    Ivan

Often times within the silos of academia it can be a lonely place and a place where people don't feel their project is understood or heard. And I would encourage folks to reach out to spaces on campus that connect people, that build bridges both within departments, within the university, but also out to community. There are many great resources and places that people can connect with others and sort of build the kind of networks that make this work something that's rewarding despite the challenges of it.

19:00 Voice Over Outro:

Collaborative Endeavors is produced by me, Lauren Rieger, on behalf of the Center for Clinical and Translational Science (AKA the CCTS) at the University of Illinois Chicago. 

To learn more about Dr. Decoteau, Dr. Arenas and the research discussed in this episode, visit the links in our show notes.

The CCTS is supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Science through their Clinical and Translational Science Award. Opinions expressed by guests of the show are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of myself, the CCTS or our funding agencies.

You can find more episodes of Collaborative Endeavors on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music & Google Podcasts. New episodes drop monthly. 

While we do not monetize this podcast, we do love positive feedback! If you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a 5 star rating to help spread the word.

To learn more about how you can get involved in health research, visit or follow us on Twitter @UIC_CCTS.