For decades, black people have been fighting to overcome systemic racism, economic inequality, and mass incarceration and improve their living conditions. Now, during a global pandemic, the impact of this bias is clearer than ever. Pandemics are not only biological phenomena but also acted as great causes of social change, revealing inequalities in the allocation of health and wealth, and assisting proposals for the reformation of social systems. At present, the mass protests happening in the US as a result of the death of George Floyd can be seen as a sign of a deeper social pathology brought forward by the response to the health crisis sparked by COVID-19.
When US Police officer Derek Chauvin was found on video pinning George Floyd to the ground as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” The vision could not help but resonate with the way coronavirus has also been disproportionately throttling the lives of African-Americans, including the people belonging to Nigerian diaspora. As the Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri said to the BBC, “The pandemic itself is about the very issue of breathing. I think that helped to strike a chord in people.”
Figures from APM Research Lab show that black Americans, on average, have been dying of COVID-19 at nearly three times compared to the rate of white Americans. Similarly, in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics, blacks are four times more prone to die from coronavirus than white people. Shockingly in Minnesota, black people account for one-third of coronavirus cases despite making up only 6 percent of the state’s population.
Activist and Harvard philosopher Cornel Ronald West has stated that the racial health disparities revealed by COVID-19 are proof of America’s “failed social experiment.” These inequalities provoke questions about the adequacy of the US public health system and America’s ability to protect its most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens from the infectious disease.
How Did #BlackLivesMatter Start?
As protests against racist police brutality spread across the US and expanding around the globe, rallying cries of “Black Lives Matter” echo through the streets and digital avenues. As we all think about how to respond and participate at such a crucial time, it is important to understand what #BlackLivesMatter actually means.
While racism in the United States goes back hundreds of years to the country’s originating, the Black Lives Matter timeline started more recently. The movement arose out of the release of George Zimmerman after he murdered Trayvon Martin in February 2012. And in 2013, Opal Tometi, along with Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, started the Black Lives Matter movement. Opal, who is a Nigerian-American human rights activist and former Executive Director of the first national immigrant rights organization of the United States’ for people of African descent (BAJI): The Black Alliance for Just Immigration. What merely began as a hashtag in reaction to Trayvon Martin’s murder became a nationwide sensation, with protests against the killings of innocent African-Americans across the country.
After the second-degree murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer, and nationwide protests to a degree unseen in half a century, Black Lives Matter is once again the most consequential story in the United States, which confronted other countries with uncomfortable revelations as well.
Similar Past Episodes
In 1849 US was swept by cholera outbreaks, and the epidemic fell most heavily on the inhabitants of impoverished inner-city areas. And the same happened in the Five Points area of New York, where Irish immigrants were crammed into horrible living spaces, and the Irish suffered 40% of the mortality. In contrast, privileged New Yorkers from Protestant backgrounds escape from cholera’s wreck by fleeing to other places.
In 1832, when “Asiatic cholera” appeared in the US, Americans assumed that religious value and the natural simplicity of American life would protect them from this plague. Soon after 1849, New Yorkers could no longer neglect the link between cholera and poverty. When in 1854, John Snow, the English physician, proved that cholera was transmitted in water, the cause for sanitary improvement became powerful. Knowing that cholera was connected to overcrowding, unhygienic housing, and poor sewerage disposal, American sanitarians urged health boards to provide safe water systems to the cities. Later, these boards ultimately became the models for local and state public health offices.
More often, sadly, epidemics are times for discrimination against ethnic and social groups. One more event when in 1892, New York was struck by typhus, the city’s sanitary officials blamed the break-out on Jewish immigrants who had traveled from Russia in the lower deck of the ship and quarantined them on North Brother Island in the East River of New York City. Whereas, passengers who had traveled in the first-class sections of ships were not isolated.
Protest in the Times of Pandemic
America’s crises are fuming over one into another amid the coronavirus pandemic and protest by masses of people on the streets. Both the two stories can be interlinked as systematic racism since both are public health concerns. In the US and around the world, protesters are crowding streets to support the Black Lives Matter movement in protest against police brutality and systemic racism, and demanding justice for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade, the four black people killed in hate crimes or by law enforcement in 2020.
As the coronavirus crisis continues, it has also become transparent that black communities are suffering a disproportionate burden over a long period. Even though both the stories can’t be compared directly, somehow, both are public health emergencies that are turning into enormous layers. Jaime Slaughter-Acey, who is an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, says that the fact that people are stepping out into the streets protesting, despite the risks of Covid-19, tells the fear of police brutality, racism, and racism is much more terrifying to them. Years of disparate economic opportunity, marginalization, and structural racism, have led to both.
Black Americans face much more significant risks when it comes to public health. Racism has also created the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic worse because it generates skepticism in public institutions. Even in situations where police may be needed, African Americans are less likely to call the police, because of fear that they might experience unfairness or be regarded as a perpetrator. Right now, streets are filled with mass crowds at a time when social distancing should still be exercised, and more coronavirus infections may come out of it. This is rightfully concerning, but that concern can exist adjacent to the fears of violence and death that black communities face, pandemic or not.
Protesting during a pandemic is a fatal risk. In any other year, protesting in large crowds carries chances of getting injured by fellow protesters or due to law enforcement. But in 2020, we also have to fight with the COVID-19, a virus that can have fatal complications that are still infecting millions of lives across the country.
It is suggested when attending a protest in the present scenario, people need to be very cautious and vigilant about protecting their health and wellbeing, as well as their personal and their families’ safety. Remember that the only way to ensure not to get infected with the coronavirus at a protest is not to attend one in the first place, but we respect that many people are willing to take that risk and stand for each other.
Support of Health Professional
Over 1,200 United States’ public health professionals have shown their sentiment in a letter in support of the protestors. The letter states White supremacy is a serious public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.
As a nurse told Insider, racism is a public health issue that goes much deeper than the current pandemic situation, and efforts to fix inequalities in healthcare, housing, and safety are primarily needed now, more than ever. As per her, coronavirus is a temporary and critical health crisis, while racism through violence has been killing their patients since the hospitals were built and will continue killing them long after COVID-19 is gone.
It is possible to get infected or spread the coronavirus during a protest, especially as people are standing and shouting for hours shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. As stated by the health professionals, while protesting is a risk for getting infected with coronavirus, with careful precautions and maintaining proper distance can prevent the virus from spreading among protestors. Therefore, it is also recommended to quarantine yourself from vulnerable family members or housemates when you get home.
How States are Combating COVID-19 Spread
As mass protests continue across the US, various cities and states have started to offer free COVID-19 testing. Public health officials are carefully observing an increase in cases and hospitalizations to see if there is a spike in spread resulting from the protests, while the total US deaths from the coronavirus are more than 114,000.
City officials in San Francisco have set up the free pop-up and mobile COVID-19 testing for people concerned about exposure. Illinois also announced that the COVID-19 test would be available for anyone without insurance, without a doctor’s note, and a car, free of charge. And Jenny Durkan, Mayor of Seattle, announced that the city would be offering free testing to people. Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York, said that he wants every New Yorker to get a free test for the COVID-19. A wise recommendation stressed for the tens of thousands of protesters marching mask to mask or shoulder to shoulder, throughout the city.
How Legislations are Shaking Up
The #BlackLivesMatter movement is not giving up on street protests, but it has already started to press its demands within policy and political circles as well. DeRay Mckesson, the well-known American civil rights activist, made a bid for mayor of Baltimore. Black Lives Matter played a crucial role in other elections, such as helping unseat prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland.
In response to #BlackLivesMatter protests across the state, Congressional Democrats unveiled new legislation that would directly tackle police reform across the US. Minneapolis lawmakers pledged to dismantle its police department, both on the state and local level, ensuring to form a new system for public safety. At the same time, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would cut the city’s $6 billion police budget and spend more on social services. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also declared to cut $100 to $150 million of the city’s police budget.
For working toward equality for all people, it’s important not only to see color but also to work towards leveling the working grounds for all people. It is a depressing entity that the Black experience in America is not the same as non-Black experiences, in both apparently little and strangely large areas. While many workplaces and schools still forbid natural hairdos or look at them as less professional.
More than half of African Americans, including the highly skilled Nigerian immigrants, also reported encountering racial discrimination at work, from receiving calls for interviews at lower rates and right on up to pay and promotion discrepancies. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was instituted to fight workplace discrimination is too underfunded to respond satisfactorily. Long back in 2018, the EEOC acquired $505 million for victims of discrimination, but the agency’s shortage of resources has resulted in a backlog of nearly 50,000 charges. For Black people in America, moving through the world is not that easier, and it’s a long past to realize that.
It is the time to fix things that must’ve got in place long back in time. It is time for healing, compassion, greater communication, and increased understanding. Everything that has been said about these incidents exposes some of the faults in the United States. We must agree. The United States is hardly perfect. What has truly made the United States of American a multi-ethnic, multi-racial democratic experiment impressive in the world’s eyes is its ability to reform itself and become a fairer, more inclusive, and equal society over time. With that spirit, we stand in full support to bring justice to Black people across the world.