Research Article

Socioeconomic status determines COVID-19 incidence and related mortality in Santiago, Chile

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Science  28 May 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6545, eabg5298
DOI: 10.1126/science.abg5298

Urban socioeconomics and mortality

Santiago, Chile, is a highly segregated city with distinct zones of affluence and deprivation. This setting offers a window on how social factors propel the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic in an economically vulnerable society with high levels of income inequality. Mena et al. analyzed incidence and mortality attributed to SARS-CoV-2 to understand spatial variations in disease burden. Infection fatality rates were higher in lower-income municipalities because of comorbidities and lack of access to health care. Disparities between municipalities in the quality of their health care delivery system became apparent in testing delays and capacity. These indicators explain a large part of the variation in COVID-19 underreporting and deaths and show that these inequalities disproportionately affected younger people.

Science, abg5298, this issue p. eabg5298

Structured Abstract


The COVID-19 crisis has exposed major inequalities between communities. Understanding the societal risk factors that make some groups particularly vulnerable is essential to ensure more effective interventions for this and future pandemics. Here, we focus on socioeconomic status as a risk factor. Although it is broadly understood that social and economic inequality has a negative impact on health outcomes, the mechanisms by which socioeconomic status affects disease outcomes remain unclear. These mechanisms can be mediated by a range of systemic structural factors, such as access to health care and economic safety nets. We address this gap by providing an in-depth characterization of disease incidence and mortality and their dependence on demographic and socioeconomic strata in Santiago, a highly segregated city and the capital of Chile.


Combining publicly available data sources, we conducted a comprehensive analysis of case incidence and mortality during the first wave of the pandemic. We correlated COVID-19 outcomes with behavioral and health care system factors while studying their interaction with age and socioeconomic status. To overcome the intrinsic biases of incomplete case count data, we used detailed mortality data. We developed a parsimonious Gaussian process model to study excess deaths and their uncertainty and reconstructed true incidence from the time series of deaths with a new regularized maximum likelihood deconvolution method. To estimate infection fatality rates by age and socioeconomic status, we implemented a hierarchical Bayesian model that adjusts for reporting biases while accounting for incompleteness in case information.


We find robust associations between COVID-19 outcomes and socioeconomic status, based on health and behavioral indicators. Specifically, we show in lower–socioeconomic status municipalities that testing was almost absent early in the pandemic and that human mobility was not reduced by lockdowns as much as it was in more affluent locations. Test positivity and testing delays were much higher in these locations, indicating an impaired capacity of the health care system to contain the spread of the epidemic. We also find that 73% more deaths than in a normal year were observed between May and July 2020, and municipalities at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum were hit the hardest, both in relation to COVID-19–attributed deaths and excess deaths. Finally, the socioeconomic gradient of the infection fatality rate appeared particularly steep for younger age groups, reflecting worse baseline health status and limited access to health care in municipalities with low socioeconomic status.


Together, these findings highlight the substantial consequences of socioeconomic and health care disparities in a highly segregated city and provide practical methodological approaches useful for characterizing the COVID-19 burden and mortality in other urban centers based on public data, even if reports are incomplete and biased.

Effect of socioeconomic inequalities on COVID-19 outcomes.

The map on the left shows the municipalities that were included in this study, colored by their socioeconomic status score. For the comparison between COVID-19 deaths and excess deaths (top right), COVID-19–confirmed deaths are shown in light green and COVID-19–attributed deaths in dark green. Excess deaths, shown in gray, correspond to the difference between observed and predicted deaths. Predicted deaths were estimated using a Gaussian process model. The shading indicates 95% credible intervals for the excess deaths. The infection fatality rates (bottom right) were inferred by implementing a hierarchical Bayesian model, with vertical lines representing credible intervals by age and socioeconomic status.


The COVID-19 pandemic has affected cities particularly hard. Here, we provide an in-depth characterization of disease incidence and mortality and their dependence on demographic and socioeconomic strata in Santiago, a highly segregated city and the capital of Chile. Our analyses show a strong association between socioeconomic status and both COVID-19 outcomes and public health capacity. People living in municipalities with low socioeconomic status did not reduce their mobility during lockdowns as much as those in more affluent municipalities. Testing volumes may have been insufficient early in the pandemic in those places, and both test positivity rates and testing delays were much higher. We find a strong association between socioeconomic status and mortality, measured by either COVID-19–attributed deaths or excess deaths. Finally, we show that infection fatality rates in young people are higher in low-income municipalities. Together, these results highlight the critical consequences of socioeconomic inequalities on health outcomes.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution license, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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