Racism in the time of the Coronavirus: A threat to global public health

Salih Booker, President and CEO, Center for International Policy

A family stands for a photograph on a Georgia plantation in 1850. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Structural racism in America virtually guarantees that the victims of the coronavirus crisis will disproportionately be Black. Will the same be true at the global level where the structural racism embedded in international relations suggests that Africa may become the continent most negatively impacted by COVID-19 in the long term?

American Apartheid: In the U.S. the impact of COVID-19 is being felt most harshly by the African-American community. The structural inequalities that constitute American Apartheid are resulting in dramatic disparities by race in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. From the data released by the Center for Disease Control on the first month of the pandemic in the U.S. we learn that while African Americans constitute only 13 percent of the population, they made up 33 percent of the patients sick enough to require hospitalization. Available data from cities and states across the U.S. confirm the pattern: In Chicago, blacks make up only 33 percent of the population, yet more than 70 percent of the deaths related to the coronavirus. In Michigan, blacks are just 14 percent of the population, but account for over 40 percent of the COVID-19 deaths there.

The structural inequalities and health disparities that exist in the U.S. have their origins in the mass enslavement of Africa people, followed by Jim Crow segregation and discrimination, and they have been exacerbated by public policies within every sector that have put Black lives last for far too long. Today, African-Americans workers are also much less likely than white workers to be able to work from home during this crisis, and they are less likely to work in jobs that offer health coverage.

This is why African Americans are disproportionately affected, not — as suggested by the U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, — because of American Americans’ own behavior. Adams was widely criticized for saying that African-Americans and Latinos should “step it up” and avoid alcohol, drugs and tobacco, out of concern for their “big mamma” and “pop pop.”

Global Apartheid: In Africa, the novel coronavirus began to spread later than in other regions giving governments there more time to take precautionary measures. But there are deep concerns about the Pandemic’s ultimate impact in Africa because of the structural problems of poverty, weak healthcare infrastructure, lack of access to clean water, overcrowded conditions in rapidly urbanizing population centers, and dependence on imports of essential items from the global north, that the whole continent faces.

South Africa, which has the largest number of known cases (2,173) has just extended its nationwide lock-down that was initiated after only a small number of deaths in the country. Currently, most of Africa’s coronavirus cases are concentrated in North Africa, with 4 of the 7 countries of that sub-region ranking in the top 10 countries with the most confirmed cases. There has been much speculation that Africa’s youthful population will help mitigate the spread of the virus, and that climatic factors may also help reduce the severity of COVID-19 in Africa. But African experts agree that there is not yet any scientific evidence to confirm such beliefs.

John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledged that Africa’s coronavirus statistics were imperfect but pointed out that claims that a large number of infections had slipped under the radar was not supported by hospitals being flooded with people sick from the virus. Nkengasong has reacted with dismay over how poorly many wealthy countries have responded to the pandemic. He believes that the pandemic’s toll in Africa will be greatly exacerbated by existing endemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria — making COVID-19 an “existential threat to us.”

Many of the same structural inequalities, and resulting underlying health conditions, that African-Americans face in the United States are mirrored by the conditions Africans’ face in comparison to much of the rest of the world. So far, African governments and regional bodies have been taking swift action to contain and mitigate the destruction wrought by this virus, but no one yet dares to make a prediction on the proportions that COVID-19 could reach in Africa.

The World Health Organization has reported that the pandemic has gained a firm foothold in Africa and the number of confirmed cases and deaths continues to rise at an alarming rate. Soon we will see whether the wealthier nations of the world will act in solidarity with the countries of the poorest continent and recognize not only our common humanity but our indivisible shared self-interest in achieving global health.

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement