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COVID-19 and Inequality: The Racialization of Pandemics

“Pandemics do not materialise in isolation. They are part and parcel of capitalism and colonization,” says Edna Bonhomme, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, in this interview with GRIP on the COVID-19 pandemic and global inequality.

Originally published by GRIP, the Global Research Programme on Inequality as part of its miniseries providing short interviews with scholars and relevant organisations that share their insights and views on how the pandemic might exacerbate or alter existing inequalities across six key dimensions: social, economic, cultural, knowledge, environmental and political inequalities.

Edna Bonhomme is an historian of science, lecturer, and writer whose work interrogates the archaeology of (post)colonial science, embodiment, and surveillance in the Middle East and North Africa. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany. Bonhomme has already written for Aljazeera about COVID-19 and inequality and on racism as the “most dangerous pre-existing condition” in the US. In this interview with GRIP she describes some of the racialized inequalities that COVID-19 is accentuating.

To what extent could we now see global health inequalities becoming accentuated as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak?

In the United States, there are major disparities with respect to how the coronavirus is transmitted and who dies. Unfortunately, Black people in the United States are more likely to die from the disease. This disparity has to do with social inequities that translate to health inequities. African Americans are disproportionately more likely to suffer from a lack of adequate care, which is particularly dangerous amid this pandemic because their living conditions and employment may prevent them from following social distancing guidelines and put them at a higher risk of contracting the disease in the first place. African Americans are more likely to have essential jobs which keep the country going amid lockdowns, including in home health assistance, sanitation, public transportation and grocery stores. In New York City, at least 1,167 Metropolitan Transit Authority employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and 33 have died. African Americans are also facing health inequities in the prison system, where they are also disproportionately represented (a third of Black men are likely to spend time in prison).

How are the responses to the outbreak revealing the reverberations of colonial histories in terms of how pandemics are thought about?

In the viral Youtube video “Corona Lie,” Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, a pulmonologist, remarks: “Virologists created something very sensational here [with coronavirus].” He proceeds to downplay the virus as the flu, a seasonal occurrence that is being overblown. Wodarg believes that the reaction of governments and authorities to COVID-19 is inappropriate since the number of people with the flu in Germany – which he cited at 20,000 to 30,000 – currently exceeds the total number of coronavirus patients. Altogether, he sees the international response as part of a political plot to increase surveillance technology, government temperature checks, and panic.  In a 14 March 2020 interview with Radio Eins, Dr. Karin Mölling, professor and director of the Institute for Medical Virology at the University of Zurich, also expressed some caution about how people and governments are responding. She indicated that coronavirus is not a serious killer virus and that the real problem is die Panikmache (“scaremongering”).

These are corona skeptics heralding caution in the name of science. At the heart of these comments is a lack of recognition for the marginalized and oppressed: an indifference that bleeds into eliminationism. Yet Wodarg and Mölling are not alone in their skepticism – in Europe and beyond. While the German response to COVID-19 is lauded worldwide as among the best and most successful, comparatively, xenophobia and racism against migrants may be its Achilles heel. While the restriction of transmission has so far been relatively effective, conspiracism, denialism, and racism in Germany have become a toxic stew, boiling below a placid surface; these may undermine successful public health interventions. What is more certain is that denialism and xenophobia directly threaten the lives of migrants now, through and in addition to spread of the virus itself.

Concerning colonialism, a striking example of how former colonial powers continue to infect their one-time colonies can be found on the African continent today: the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Democratic Republic of Congo was from a Belgian citizen. The imprint of Belgian colonialism in the Congo continues to cripple the country’s health care system, which will now have to handle the pandemic in the shadow of an Ebola outbreak and a current measles eruption. Rather than receive international aid without strings, the World Bank is offering a $47 million loan to the DRC to combat COVID-19.

In what ways is the global outbreak of the virus also revealing the underlying political and economic drivers of heightening inequalities within a capitalist system?

Pandemics do not materialise in isolation. They are part and parcel of capitalism and colonisation. The countries that struggled to contain and control major epidemics in the recent past, from Haiti to Sierra Leone, had deficient public health systems prior to these crises, partially as a result of their colonial histories. Moreover, products of capitalism – from war to migration to mass production and increased travel – contribute massively to the proliferation of diseases. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, capitalism is the pandemic that is causing destruction to life.

Moreover, the racialization of epidemics continues to result in very disparate outcomes. For many black people in the United States, the fear of being infected by COVID-19 coincides with the grim reality of being more likely to die from it. From Midwestern cities like Detroit and Milwaukee to semi-rural communities in Alabama and Louisiana, black Americans are dying at a disproportionate rate from the novel coronavirus. One recent study found that in Chicago, where 30 percent of the population is African American, black people accounted for 70 percent of all coronavirus deaths. These chilling statistics are a product of an unequal society in which black Americans are less likely to have health insurance, more likely to live in health care deserts, and more likely to work outside the home as essential staff in health care, grocery stores, and transportation. All in all, black Americans are living in a social and medical apartheid.

What might be some of the elements that need to be included in a holistic and equitable response to the outbreak?

The global community, however, can successfully counter these epidemics if it employs a holistic health policy. To defeat COVID-19, and other pandemics to come, the world powers need to learn to act as one. To ensure global health, the global pharmaceutical industry should work to make essential drugs and vaccines affordable to everyone, everywhere. This could start with making any future COVID-19 vaccine free to everyone. This would also mean a global rental freeze to help poor and working class people. Moreover, there should be a universal basic income to help provide a living wage to people who are struggling to survive.

The Global Research Programme on Inequality (GRIP) is a radically interdisciplinary research programme that views inequality as both a fundamental challenge to human well-being and as an impediment to achieving the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda.

Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit on Flickr

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