Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
When Boris Johnson tested positive for Covid-19 in late March, Michael Gove reminded us that “the virus does not discriminate”. The UK government spread the myth of coronavirus as a “great leveller”, impacting people irrespective of socio-economic standing, race and gender. It’s true: the virus does not, and cannot, detect or target specific racial or socio-economic groups. Yet, the virus has not been a ‘great leveller’ by any means. The blind and undiscriminating coronavirus has made the devastating extent of social inequality all the more apparent.
With black men three times more likely to die from coronavirus than white men and south Asians facing the highest risk of death after being admitted to hospital, it is glaringly obvious that minority groups are disproportionately vulnerable to Covid.
There are countless attempts to explain the stark disparities in the impact of Covid-19; however, it is clear that “racism and poverty create the conditions in which it becomes easier for a virus like Covid to establish itself.” Coronavirus has brought to light, and exacerbated, the structural inequalities weaved into the fabric of our society. It reveals the extent to which racism, poverty and the vast chasms in social inequality determine a person’s health and chances of survival. Yet, we must not perceive this phenomenon in isolation. Covid-19 has had a unique and unprecedented impact across the world but its relationship with systematic racism is far from unique.
Humanity has been, and will continue to be, perpetually hounded by novel risks, illnesses and pandemics. And for centuries, BAME bodies have been brutalised, dehumanised and pathologised. For centuries, racialised bodies have been framed as diseased, unsanitary and uncontrolled. The racial disparities brought into focus by the current coronavirus pandemic are not just symptomatic of present-day inequalities and discrimination. They are not simply emblems of current injustice. They are the hallmarks of the racial hierarchy grounded in the pathologising of people.
The long history of racial oppression, generating the racial inequalities and related disproportionate impact of coronavirus on marginalised groups we see today, has its foundations in the racialisation of disease. The toxic tides of colonialism and racial othering have long been underpinned by the false claims of racist science.
The false narrative of leprosy as a ‘black disease’ was instrumental in the Western justification of compulsory segregation in South Africa. Immigration and health policies have historically been framed according to highly racialized concerns that portray BAME bodies as diseased and threatening.
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, following a smallpox epidemic in San Francisco, barred Chinese workers from immigrating to the US. It blatantly expressed the unfounded fear of a cholera and smallpox infected Chinese population. The Chinese community across the US and Canada was scapegoated following the spike in cholera cases which licensed governments to increase surveillance and policing of Chinatowns and other minority communities.
This pattern of pathologising race continually rears its ugly head and is used to support racial discrimination. Western coverage of the Ebola epidemic exhibited images of the ‘Dark Continent’, a diseased and feared place. Ebola, having spread across a number of borders in West Africa and infected thousands of people, was only deemed an ‘international’ crisis when a handful of cases appeared in Europe and America. The sensationalist media obsession with West African bush-meat and Chinese wet-markets functions to associate diseases with the obscure and ‘savage’ practices of BAME bodies, it is an attempt to attribute blame and signal that a group is a threat.
The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities is not only a symbol of present-day localised inequalities. These disparities result from historic racial hierarchies which are themselves firmly grounded in the racialisation of disease. The rhetoric of the ‘Kung Fu Flu’ or ‘China Virus’ is by no means unique. It is situated in a history that systematically pathologises BAME bodies, portrays them as diseased and uses these narratives to justify their oppression: the very oppression that has increased the vulnerability, and death-toll, of BAME people to Covid-19.