COVID-19 and the Global Pandemic of Anti-Blackness
The initial word was that Black folks couldn’t catch it. Rumors began spreading that Black people were immune to the virus. But what we have learned and continue to learn with each passing day as the global death toll rises is that Black life is quite susceptible to this virus. But not in a way that makes sense biologically. Black people are not genetically predisposed to this novel coronavirus. What we are is generationally predisposed to an anti-Black discrimination that has weakened our communal immune system leaving each of us vulnerable to this virus in ways people in other communities are not.
Wherever Black people are in this world, we exist mostly on the social margins, isolated and disproportionately impacted by policies and social practices rooted in notions of white supremacy that undermine our collective capacity for health, wealth and safety. Whether on the continent of Africa or throughout the Black Diaspora, our health and safety have been severely hampered by a global social order that has rested upon a racialized ranking that necessitates Black existence be fixed at its bottom to enable and justify whiteness to exist at its apex. Since the 1500s, this arrangement has had deadly implications for Black people. As the bodies pile in over-crowded morgues, hospital rooms and rented trailers in the US and in all the places where Black people live, this virus is exposing the pillars of that structure in ways that are as horrific as when European slave ships set sail from Africa to the Americas.
For the first month or so most of the news coverage in the United States addressed the issue without consideration of race. This was touted as a virus that was wreaking havoc on all segments of the population equally. Then Milwaukee happened. The first casualties in that predominantly white working-class city were all Black men. And when more Black people continued to die, the community there began to ask questions that forced a narrative change. Initial reports claimed that the upsurge in the Black community was due to Black people not heeding the warnings and precautions. Then as activists began to call out the contradictions in the news coverage, more honest reports emerged identifying racial disparities in all areas of life as the true underlying conditions that account for the sky rocketing rates of infection and death in Black communities.
Yet, scant attention had been paid to the impact that generations of discrimination in health care, housing, education, employment — the fundamental pillars of the society — has had on Black people’s overall health. Even less attention has been given to the need for strategies to redress the underlying social and economic constraints that continue to suffocate the life of Black possibilities and opportunity. That Black people in Flint are forced to tackle this pandemic without clean water is a telling indictment. Black communities have already been dealing with pandemic-like concerns for decades in the US. And as much as we would want to believe that money solves all problems, this virus is showing us that wealth or its lack is not much of a deciding factor.
Less than a week after Milwaukee, officials in the wealthiest predominantly Black county in the country, Prince George’s County in Maryland, were rushing to meet the surge in expected hospitalizations as a result of the virus spread. A few days later, the county had amassed the largest concentration of positive cases in the state.
These disparate conditions facing African Americans are further compounded by the everyday racism that puts Black life at risk. Despite the directives from all levels of government for every person to cover their nose and mouth when in public, video footage of Black people being accosted and harassed by police are seen with a regularity that is beyond baffling. Some show Black persons escorted out of grocery stores under claims of looking suspicious. In the videos we see them being followed by police as they exit stores as white customers enter wearing the exact same masks on their faces. The very racism that is responsible for the weakened immune systems of Black people due to stress and anxiety have not shown any signs of reprieve in this time of extreme grieving.
For most Black people, there is no sanctuary. There is no salvage from the turmoil of being turned away at the very places established to provide care. Each week new stories emerge on social media and national news outlets of Black people dying just days after being denied admission at hospitals despite showing symptoms of the virus.
At the time of this writing, the Black mortality rate from this Corona-virus is more than twice that of Latinos and Asians and almost three times the rate of white mortality in the US. According to the APM Research Lab, “in some places, the multiple between Black and White mortality rates greatly exceeds the 2.6 overall figure that we’ve constructed from all available data for the nation. In Kansas and Wisconsin, Black residents are 7 times more likely to die than White residents. In Washington D.C., the rate among Blacks is 6 times higher than Whites, while in Michigan and Missouri, it is 5 times greater. In Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, New York State, Oregon and South Carolina, Blacks are 3–4 times more likely to die of the virus than Whites.” This is incomprehensible.
African-Americans represent approximately 13 percent of the US population. In the UK, the Black population is less than 5 percent, yet the Black mortality rate from the coronavirus is running at more than three times the rate of whites there, far outdistancing other minority and immigrant groups in the process. The London-based Institute of Fiscal Studies has released a study that attempts to get at an explanation for these stark disparities. What the researchers are clear on is that Black workers in Britain are over-represented in “key worker roles,” what here in the US would be considered essential and front-line workers. What these studies have yet to get clear on is how anti-black racism, itself, is a key factor.
Britain’s own prime minister, Boris Johnson, whom many consider a Trump knock-off, recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection that had him on life-support. Yet, even his near-death experience has not led to the creation of a plan for the most impacted communities. In the land that not too long ago tried to remove its Black citizens, British leaders are lax in their concern for Black life.
Back here in the states, all concern for Black life has been overlooked as attention has been focused on the spectacle of armed white militias and white evangelicals storming Democratically-run state capitols demanding that their governors reopen the economy. Trump, for his part, calls these noose-wielding, swastika wearing, confederate flag waving Americans “very good people” and encourages governors to “give a little.” Yet Trump has not given much of any support to communities ransacked by this virus. In fact, the governor of Maryland has reportedly put the national guard on watch of essential PPE stockpiles to block Trump’s efforts at intercepting state supply. Re-opening state economies and public facilities en masse right now would amount to a national death sentence for Black America.
That death sentence has already been enacted unofficially in Brazil. In the country with the highest population of Black people in the diaspora, Black people are dying at rates that dwarf all other communities there. First brought to the country by the wealthy returning to major cities where Black people work in menial jobs and as house servants, the virus has now spread into the over-crowded favelas where residents live without running water and proper sanitation.
In many ways, the Brazilian government mirrors that of the US response. Both nations are led by capitalists who came to power with claims to clean up government corruption with campaigns mired in rightwing conservative rhetoric with winks to white nationalists and militia groups. Both nations have class-based economies that keep Black and Brown workers locked in poverty, discrimination, intimidation and violence, where police regularly engage in flagrant acts of brutality, assault and abuse. None of this coincidence. Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro flaunt their friendship before the world. Their strategic alliance as political leaders are linked in a whiteness that revels in anti-black violence that is both rhetorical and real. Both men have dismissed the guidance of medical experts on how to reduce the spread in their respective countries. Touting a tough-guy image reminiscent of Mussolini, Bolsonaro has gone as far as making impromptu appearances in densely populated areas as public acts of disregard of the pandemic. But this is not about lack of understanding or ignorance. Both leaders were receiving briefs months before the virus’ arrival on their respective shores. These are malicious acts representative of a political class that seeks to coddle a Christian evangelical base that has long kept social distance from science as they await the return of their white savior. For them, this pandemic is prophecy fulfilled.
Yet, even science has not been the friend of Black people during this pandemic. At the height of the crisis, when governments were desperate to find potential cures, two French “medical experts” went on live TV with one, Dr. Jean-Paul Mira (who heads up an intensive care unit in a Paris hospital), saying, “If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?” Although this was met with some criticism from various sectors, the fact that two esteemed doctors would casually call for experimenting on a population of people is more than revolting. It speaks to the kind of anti-blackness that has plagued African populations since France colonized most of the continent. It speaks to a world that is willing to promote experts and leaders willing to push the envelope of acceptable parameters of denigration of Black lives. It shows us how little progress has been made since the 1921 publication of René Maran’s classic anti-colonial novel, Batouala, in which the lead character says, “We are nothing but flesh out of which taxes may be ground. … The white men are killing us slowly.”
But perhaps nothing shows the inhumane levels of anti-blackness in this time of COVID-19 than the experiences of Africans in China.
Despite being the target of Trump’s racist campaigns that seek to deflect blame for his abysmal failures to curtail this virus’ impact onto the Chinese government, China has concocted its own racist narrative which has targeted Africans throughout China. Video footage of Africans kicked out of their places of residence onto the streets without any means of support from local or national agencies sent shock-waves of anger throughout Africa. In Guangzhou there have been cases of Africans having their passports taken by police further jeopardizing their safety. Conditions deteriorated so terribly that rumors began to spread of African officials planning to send planes to return their countrymen and women back home.
The African presence in China is a direct result of the strategic inroads the Chinese government has made with African countries such as Kenya and Nigeria. Since becoming Africa’s largest trade partner more than a decade ago, China has invested billions in infrastructure development with an emphasis on port and railroad construction. Yet, what is clear is that these investments will do little to change the excessive class-stratification and extreme levels of income disparity that exist throughout Africa.
These recent events suggest a pattern of abuse all too familiar to African workers and migrants in search of a financial foothold in a global economy predicated on an exploitation that disregards their humanity to the point of death. The world may have shuttered when Trump compared countries in African to excrement, but shitty is a most accurate term to describe the response around the world to the Black COVID-19 mortality rate.
At the time of this writing, more Black people have now died in the US from this coronavirus than were lynched during segregation. Never in a white supremacist’s wildest dreams could they have imagined a plague that would wipe out thousands of Black lives in a matter of a couple of months. When the germs clear and the air is breathable again without fear, this moment in human history will be marked by the toll it has taken on Black life. It will reveal a turbulent world economic order crumbling on the backs of an essential Black labor pool kept at subsistence levels of health with no sufficient safeguards in place. Will all that may be uncertain and unknowable about our world right now, one thing is for sure — the pandemic of anti-blackness, its symptoms and effects, will remain long after the coronavirus COVID-19 has come and gone.