Minority ethnic groups have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the exact reasons for this remain unclear, they are likely due to a complex interplay of factors rather than a single cause. Reducing these inequalities requires a greater understanding of the causes. Research to date, however, has been hampered by a lack of theoretical understanding of the meaning of “ethnicity” (or race) and the potential pathways leading to inequalities. In particular, quantitative analyses have often adjusted away the pathways through which inequalities actually arise (i.e. mediators for the effect of interest), leading to the effects of social processes, and particularly structural racism, becoming hidden. In this paper, we describe a framework for understanding the pathways that have generated ethnic (and racial) inequalities in COVID-19. We suggest that differences in health outcomes due to the pandemic could arise through six pathways: 1) differential exposure to the virus; 2) differential vulnerability to infection/disease; 3) differential health consequences of the disease; 4) differential social consequences of the disease; 5) differential effectiveness of pandemic control measures; and 6) differential adverse consequences of control measures. Current research provides only a partial understanding of some of these pathways. Future research and action will require a clearer understanding of the multiple dimensions of ethnicity and an appreciation of the complex interplay of social and biological pathways through which ethnic inequalities arise. Our framework highlights the gaps in the current evidence and pathways that need further investigation in research that aims to address these inequalities.


© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2021. Re-use permitted under CC BY. Published by BMJ. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/'>https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/'>https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Cite as

Katikireddi, S., Lal, S., Carrol, E., Niedzwiedz, C., Khunti, K., Dundas, R., Diderichsen, F. & Barr, B. 2021, 'Unequal impact of the COVID-19 crisis on minority ethnic groups: a framework for understanding and addressing inequalities', Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/jech-2020-216061

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Last updated: 29 June 2022
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