The New U.S.A.: The United States of Anxiety

Drs. Lorece V. Edwards, Lenwood Hayman and Randolph Rowel Morgan State University School of Community Health & Policy | 6/5/2020, 6 a.m.
As COVID-19 spreads across the nation levels of anxiety and stress are skyrocketing.
The New U.S.A.: The United States of Anxiety Courtesy Photo

As COVID-19 spreads across the nation levels of anxiety and stress are skyrocketing. People everywhere are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and stress, especially black and brown people in America. One of the factors contributing to the high levels of stress and anxiety are black and brown people who are more likely to be a part of the new COVID-19 essential workforce. Essential workers must report to work daily. People in these positions often calculate the risk verses the benefit. A new framework for understanding perceived risk and risk prioritization— the Perceived Risk Hierarchy Theory (PRHT) helps to connect the dots.

The Perceived Risk Hierarchy Theory (PRHT) was developed to understand risk and risk prioritization among marginalized populations. PRHT posits that perceptions of risk severity are attenuated by what people perceive as more imminent in their lives (high-to-low risk ranking order; Edwards et al., 2017). PRHT postulates that people calculate their perceived risk based on how proximate and urgent the threats are in their lives as well as the impact assessment of the identified risk. This framework is critical for essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic as they risk their lives and the health of their families to perform a job. Daily, essential workers choose between making a living, their health, and life. As a result, their stress and anxiety levels are skyrocketing.

“Essential workers” now refers not only to first responders, but also to grocery store employees, fast food workers, personal care aides, sanitarians, transit drivers, nursing home assistants, and several others still going to work during the crisis. Several of these workers, many of whom reside in hyper-segregated communities, live paycheck-to-paycheck and cannot afford to miss any days of work. Furthermore, many work multiple jobs just to make ends meet and survive. Essential workers thus face an increased risk of both being exposed to COVID-19 and contracting the disease due to their exhaustion and often, compromised immune systems due to stress.

As news emerged that COVID-19 was infecting essential workers, especially those who could not maintain social distancing, many feared becoming infected and possibly transmitting the virus to their loved ones at home. Immediately, workers became concerned about their jobs and their finances. Their anxiety levels continuously increase as they worry about the consequences of not reporting to work. Several essential workers are also afraid of having to take public transportation to and from work, as using public transportation has helped spread COVID-19, especially in cities with high urban population density. Density is a key factor in determining area vulnerability to the virus (Florida, 2020).

Essential workers are on the front lines of this public health crisis. They know the dangers and associated-risk of being hyper-exposed to COVID-19 via underlying health risks, over-crowded housing, and limited access to healthcare and COVID-19 testing. However, their financial insecurity requires them to prioritize between the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 and the risk of unemployment. For essential workers, leaving home is not a choice. Lacking the necessary, yet seldom

supplied by