Collateral Damage and the “War on COVID-19”

I mean, obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that. But what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated.

Dr. Anthony Fauci on whether early proactive measures could have reduced COVID-19 fatalities

The idea you could go 12 tweets on why Black folks & other POC suffer higher rates of #COVID19 & never use the word racism is malpractice.

W. Kamau Bell on tweets by Surgeon General Jerome Adams

Once again America is at war. In COVID-19, it has found a new enemy against which to marshal its not so vast resources. America needs its enemies, manufacturing them at will, just as it manufactures consent to combat them. But like most of America’s perpetual wars, the war on COVID-19 is actually a war of attrition on America itself, or more precisely on its communities of color.

War is a protracted affair that produces collateral damage. We are witnessing some of that damaging legacy today. America’s war on COVID-19 is fought on multiple fronts, for it is also a war on truth launched by a bone spurs “wartime president” who, flanked by an army of loyal Republican enablers and Fox News propagandists, has launched preemptive strikes against Asians, Asian Americans, and immigrants, targeting them for racist, xenophobic rage, while downplaying his own racist rhetoric and the deadly virulence of the viral enemy in our midst.

Of course, racism and xenophobia pre-date the coronavirus. Like Trump himself, the coronavirus has simply made explicit the implicit biases and blatant racism that have infected life in America since its inception. Today, in the pestilent shadow of COVID-19, Asian Americans, whom America has historically regarded as, to borrow sociologist Mia Tuan’s term, “forever foreigners,” are verbally vilified, spat on, and physically assaulted. The damned-if-you-do-damned if you don’t implacability of racist (il)logic render escape from its cycle of hate impossible no matter what they do.

For Asian Americans, this means, says San Francisco State University’s Russell Jeung, “If you’re wearing a mask, you’re seen as a disease carrier. If you’re not wearing a mask, you’re seen as a disease carrier but negligent.”

For African Americans, it means that donning a surgical mask carries its own unique risks.

Damon Young, the author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, writes,

Pre-‘rona, if I’d decided to wear a bandanna and a ski mask on a trip to Giant Eaglethe police, the National Guard, at least three of the Avengers and a Wyatt Earp hologram might have been summoned to contain and neutralize me. But now, I’m a menace to society if I’m not masked up? As absurd as America can be, it’s just too much, man. Be consistent.

In fact, America’s racial extremism is consistent, and absurdly so. It is, quite literally, an extremism that recognizes people of color only when it places them at both extremes of dehumanizing stereotypes: Blacks are harmless buffoons and menacing brutes. If they fail it is because they are lazy; if they succeed it is because they are affirmative action hires. In the Disunited States of COVID America, if they don’t don masks, they are irresponsible “super spreaders”; if they do, they are criminal thugs, virulent Trayvon Martins who have traded in their hoodies for surgical gauze and whose presence in “white spaces” is perceived as an existential threat to white property and white lives.

On March 18th, two black men wearing surgical masks were escorted out of an Illinois Walmart by a police officer who followed them a few steps behind (was he practicing social distancing?), hand on taser. To the ever-expanding list of black criminal offenses – “Driving While Black,” “Walking While Black,” “Eating While Black,” “Napping While Black,” and “Breathing While Black” – we can add another: “Trying to Survive COVID-19 While Black,” perhaps the greatest offense of them all, living proof that the title of Young’s book is remarkably on point and that the last thing white American can abide is a blacker America. But really, did anyone actually expect black lives to matter in pandemic-ravaged America when they never have?

For some, COVID-19 is a Social Darwinist’s wet dream. What better way to get rid of unwanted marginal populations. Death panels by triage. This is what our laissez-faire health care system has been doing all along, though less dramatically and with less potential spillover into elite communities. After all, this is a nation where prior to the pandemic 27.5 million Americans were without health insurance, a number that will grow as more Americans lose their jobs during lockdown. Meanwhile, Trump fecklessly equivocates over the danger of the outbreak, while his 2021 budget proposes massive cuts to social programs, suggesting that our warrior president prefers to wage war on Medicaid, welfare, food stamps, and other safety net programs.

Social Darwinists are not the only one’s getting their rocks off, however. According to the Anti-Defamation League, white supremist groups are blaming the coronavirus on Jews, Asians, and immigrants and urging their members to attack minority and immigrant communities. The Department of Homeland Security reports that some groups have even encouraged their infected “soldiers,” armed with saliva-filled spray bottles and other IEDs (Improvised Expectoration Devices), the new weapons of choice among white nationalist terrorists, to intentionally spread the coronavirus.

It seems, however, that white supremacists have sorely underestimated the extent to which our nation’s systemic racism makes their own genocidal plotting appear amateurish in comparison. It is now widely reported that blacks are disproportionately affected by the virus. As of April 3rd, in Chicago, where blacks constitute 30% of the population, they represent 70% of COVID-19 deaths; in Michigan, with a black population of 15%, they account for 35% of cases and 40% of deaths; in Milwaukee County, where blacks are 26% of the population and make up half of COVID-19 cases, they account for 81% of deaths.

Still, prior to these reports, it didn’t take a rocket scientist – or a stable genius – to figure out that America’s most vulnerable and marginal communities would be disproportionally affected by the coronavirus and that resources should be proactively directed toward averting a health crisis. After all, this is a disease whose risks increase among those with preexisting chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and obesity, conditions that disproportionately affect black people and that are further exacerbated by a lack of adequate access to health insurance and a health care system whose providers suffer from the same implicit racial bias as the society at large. Nor does it help that black people are more likely to use public transportation and live in multigenerational households, socio-economic factors which make avoidance of the virus difficult.

Yet even now only a few states track coronavirus cases and deaths by race. Instead, frontline warriors like Surgeon General Jerome Adams blame the victim. While being “crystal clear” in assuring people of color that they “are not biologically or genetically predisposed to get COVID-19 and that “there is nothing inherent wrong with you,” Adams singles out blacks and Latinos, cautioning them to “avoid alcohol tobacco and drugs.” In contrast, when he alludes without specificity to the “burden of social ills” that put them at risk, he is tellingly opaque and apparently indifferent to admonishing whites to avoid the same trio of risky substances, the last including opioids, the source of another racially disparate “epidemic,” but one that disproportionately affects whites.

Some white Americans, like recent Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh, have dismissed these reports, dismissing them as racial Uno. For them, COVID-19 is an equal opportunity scourge, a shared enemy like Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, ISIS, and “Fake News,” something all Americans can rally against, presumably as they rally round the president. But, to paraphrase Animal Farm, “We are all in this together, but some of us are more in it than others.” And that is a social fact, quite frankly, that will continue to set us apart.