The one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder requires us to reflect on the different ways communities experienced Covid-19 and how they intersect with histories of racism, discrimination and stereotypes.
The one-year anniversary has passed since the murder of George Floyd during his arrest in Minneapolis in late May 2020. This event has led to a reckoning with the past, a re-examination of the centuries-long history of slavery, particularly in the US and UK.
The anniversary of his death also provides the need to reflect and analyse the diverse ways that peoples experienced Covid-19 and how they intersect with long, global histories of racism, discrimination and stereotypes.
By their nature, viruses, bacteria and parasites infect all humans, yet the afflictions of these pathogens intersect with issues of race, class, ethnicity and nationality.
The history of Covid-19, which is a little more than a year old, demonstrates how race, ethnicity, age and gender emerged as social determinants of health inequities and disparities. This dynamic has been a constant feature in the millennia-old history of disease, allowing us to examine how history informs our present.
Pandemics and Discrimination
One of the most prominent examples of the confluence of disease and discrimination occurred during the Black Death of the 14th century. Jewish communities from medieval Spain to Germany were blamed for spreading this disease, leading to several massacres or deaths by burning.
In modern history, Nazi ideologies of disease and contamination were among the factors that led the Holocaust, with its architect, Heinrich Himmler, referring to the Jews as a bacillus, a bacterium, conflating the Jews with the bacterium Yersinia pestis that caused the Black Death.
Disease and Colonialism
After 1492, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas endured pandemics introduced by the Europeans, particularly the Spanish. Since Indigenous peoples never had been exposed to these novel pathogens, this real “Spanish flu” resulted in the death of 90 percent of their population.
Just as 1492 introduced European diseases to the Americas, a deadlier form of malaria came from Africa to the Americas as a result of the European trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the 20th century, the emergence of AIDS was tied to colonialism in the Belgian Congo.
Centuries later, Covid-19 disproportionately affected Native Americans in the US and Indigenous populations in Brazil as well as populations of African descent in both nations.
Brazil would go on to suffer the second-highest rate of coronavirus deaths after the US. Brazil’s Indigenous populations, despite their remote locations, would not be spared, and are particularly vulnerable as the Bolsonaro government has exploited their land along the Amazon River in a form of neo-colonial racism.
As marginalised and peripheral populations, they lack access to public health, like Native American populations in US reservations. The latter’s economic status was also precarious as their income depended on selling artisanal goods to tourists, which came to a halt as of March 2020, the beginning of the lockdowns.
Asians and Asian-Americans
Before the World Health Organization’s declaration of the pandemic in March 2020, in February I warned in an article for this publication of the perils of anti-Asian sentiment that had begun to manifest. As a Muslim-American, I anticipated anti-Asian discrimination as a result of the racism our communities endured following 9/11.
Not only did the repercussions of 9/11 inform my anticipation of such racism, but as a historian I knew that Euro-American anti-Asian xenophobia emerged during the late 19th century plague pandemic, setting a precedent. A century later, a shooting spree in Atlanta in March 2021 primarily targeting women of Asian heritage was the product of historic sexism and dehumanisation, in addition to the prejudice that emerged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The symbiotic relationship between racism and pandemics was tragically demonstrated in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death close to a year ago.
Lauren Powell, an African American woman and healthcare professional, penned an article following Floyd’s death titled, “My Nightmare: Covid-19 Meets Racism Meets the Killing of a Black American by Police.” Written a few days after his murder, she anticipated that the killing of an African American by the police was likely to occur due to the simple prevalence of this phenomenon in the US. Her nightmare was that it would lead to protests and potential infections during the lockdown.
In an article in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic, author Phillip Morris recounts the fate of Jason Hargrove, a married father of six who drove a Detroit public bus. Morris writes of Hargrove, “His worst nightmare materialized…when a middle-aged woman boarded his bus, stood behind him, and coughed repeatedly. She made no effort to cover her mouth.” He died a few days later from Covid-19.
Notice the author’s use of the word “nightmare,” and how it features in the headline of Powell’s article. Their nightmares are a result of the relationship between this pandemic and racial status. Hargrove, like many African Americans, was an essential worker and thus more vulnerable.
A year ago, Floyd’s autopsy revealed that he had contracted the coronavirus. Hargrove’s death revealed that African Americans are disproportionately vulnerable to contracting the virus as many have essential vocations that do not allow them the luxury of working from home.
Even though Floyd survived the virus, he did not survive the fact that African Americans are disproportionately a target of police violence.
The one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder needs to stimulate a dialogue tasked with grappling with the complex questions of the intersection of diseases and race, in the US and globally.
To answer these questions, one place to start is acknowledging that the precarious fate of vulnerable communities and the Covid-19 pandemic is embedded in a larger transnational history of disease and societal health disparities.
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