Opinion: The two pandemics of anti-Black racism and COVID-19 are tied together
Tari Ajadi is a PhD candidate in political science at Dalhousie University.
Debra Thompson is an associate professor of political science and Canada Research Chair in Racial Inequality in Democratic Societies at McGill University and author of the forthcoming book The Long Road Home.
It has been a year.
Almost one year ago, on May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. Protests ignited in Minneapolis and then spread quickly to cities across the United States and around the world, with estimates indicating that these were the largest, most diverse and longest-lasting protests in North American history.
They heralded a massive shift in public support for Black Lives Matter, bringing the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism and calls to defund the police into broader public consciousness. Although police officers are rarely held to account for the deaths they cause while on duty, Mr. Chauvin was charged and convicted by a Minneapolis jury of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
But without the viral video of Mr. Chauvin’s public killing of Mr. Floyd, recorded by a 17-year-old child who to this day has nightmares about being unable to help, the outcome would likely have been very different. The original statement by the Minneapolis police department indicated that Mr. Floyd resisted arrest and was handcuffed by officers, who then noted that he “appeared to be suffering medical distress,” without mentioning an inkling about Mr. Chauvin’s deadly use of force.
The trial revealed that Genevieve Hanson, an off-duty firefighter trained in CPR, begged the officers on the scene to let her help and was rebuffed, as were other bystanders. Law enforcement professionals, including Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo, broke the usual blue wall of silence to make the case that Mr. Chauvin’s actions were excessive and unwarranted.
Throughout the trial, Mr. Chauvin was depicted as a rogue officer who disobeyed his training and disregarded established protocol. A bad apple who went too far.
It has been a year. More than a year, in fact, of living through, with, in fear of and in spite of COVID-19. The initial lockdown in March, 2020, was followed by a brief summer respite and then another, deadlier resurgence of the virus beginning in December, 2020, more contagious variants, and the imposition of stricter curfews and stay-at-home orders, depending on where in Canada you live.
The pandemic has revealed a national crisis in long-term care, initiated talk of vaccine passports, demonstrated the precarious labour conditions of low-wage, “essential” workers, generated outbreaks among vulnerable homeless and incarcerated populations, catalyzed mass evictions, forced a mass exodus of more than 200,000 women from the Canadian labour force, brought working parents and other caregivers to the brink of exhaustion, and multiplied the negative mental health effects of social isolation for school-age children.
Even as vaccinations finally roll out, we do not know what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be on our economy, our politics or our social fabric.
In all that we’ve lived and lost this past year, we cannot think of these two phenomena – anti-Black racism and COVID-19 – as separate. Both are global, though nationally textured. Both had the potential to be mitigated by decisive government action or accelerated by epic government failure. Both are simultaneously individualistic and systemic. Both have exposed the cracks in our national moral consciousness about the definition of the common good. And both are existential threats that fuel death, degradation and destruction within our sociopolitical ecosystems.
But the two pandemics are not just similar, they are interlocking, and have wrought havoc on racialized communities across the continent.
Despite the assertions by some politicians that the virus “does not discriminate,” it is now settled scientific wisdom that the burden of disease in the COVID-19 pandemic in North America disproportionately falls on racialized communities.
National data collected in the United States shows that Hispanic/Latino communities are overrepresented in COVID-19 case counts, and Black Americans are overrepresented in deaths because of the disease. It is a bitter irony that, upon his death, it was revealed that Mr. Floyd had tested positive for COVID-19.
While similar national-level data does not exist in Canada, the patchwork of local health units and provinces that have decided to track racial disparities in COVID-19 rates tell a similar story. In Toronto, Black residents are 9 per cent of the population, yet represent 14 per cent of COVID-19 cases and 16 per cent of hospitalizations. The case rates for South Asian/Indo-Caribbean communities and Latin American communities are two to three times higher than the average rate across the city, respectively.
The virus is brutal in its efficiency – it feasts on the social fissures created by the mistreatment of, and divestment from, racialized communities
We now know far more about the mechanisms of this divestment than we did a year ago. The separation of our labour forces into those whose employers provide the flexibility to work from home, and those who are “essential,” demonstrate how intertwined race and class are in deciding who lives and who may die in this pandemic. To be an “essential” worker in 2021 is counterintuitive: The products of one’s labour are invaluable, but employers and policy makers alike treat the workers themselves as disposable.
The comforts that have made urban, middle-class life bearable during this upheaval – two-day shipping from online retailers, curbside pickup from grocery stores, open daycares, and take-out delivered hot and fresh via food delivery apps – operate by exposing an underpaid and predominantly racialized work force to the virus, often without proper protection or additional compensation.
Canada’s caregiving professions are right at the heart of this distressing hierarchy. Personal support workers and nurses, many of whom are Filipino women and who are working under Canada’s Caregiver Program, have been blamed for infecting patients despite the harrowing working conditions caregivers experience on the front lines of the hardest-hit sector of our society: long-term and in-home care.
Once exposed to the virus, these workers are often forced to continue to work because most provinces do not offer paid sick leave, and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit offered by the federal government creates a series of barriers to accessing minimal financial support.
These contradictions and binds are evidence of what researchers have termed Canada’s colour-coded labour market on red alert. Gaps in wealth, employment rates and average employment income between racialized and white Canadians are persisting or deepening.
Beyond inaction, the two pandemics expose how politicians scapegoat certain communities to avoid taking responsibility for the social and political problems the lawmakers’ incompetence has exacerbated.
From Ontario Premier Doug Ford blaming “international students” and lax border controls for a third wave of COVID-19 that emerged, in large part, from industrial and manufacturing settings, to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney using assumptions of South Asians recklessly holding big family gatherings in Calgary to explain case bumps in the city, politicians across the country find it easier to blame the racialized “other” than to reckon with their own policy decisions.
Even leaders of the Atlantic provinces, vaunted internationally for their management of the pandemic, have leapt at the opportunity to harangue Black residents for alleged breaches in public health orders – even when they have no official basis to do so.
The rationale behind this discriminatory framing appears to be simple: It works. The public (or at least the portions of the public these leaders envision as their supporters) respond to the protective, coercive powers bestowed upon policy makers in a public-health crisis so long as there is an enemy toward whom they can direct frustration and blame for this chaos.
We see this trend taking hold in the rise of anti-Asian hate in Canada, and especially in British Columbia, where nearly one out of every two people of Asian descent experienced at least one racist action in 2020.
By making the never-ending series of lockdowns a manifestation of the personal failings of a few interlopers, these leaders direct attention away from the social, medical and political institutions we have allowed to erode. The racialized other becomes the imagined vector of disease, masking compounding policy failures that have been decades in the making.
These stigmatizing narratives are also reflected in the ways Black and Indigenous patients, in particular, are treated in our health systems. Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman, suffered racist abuse from hospital staff in Saint-Charles-Borromée, Que., as she lay dying. This atrocity emerges from the continuing violence of internal colonialism, which is premised on a racial calculus that considers the lives of Indigenous peoples to be less valuable than those of settlers.
Similarly, the death of Mireille Ndjomouo at the hands of attendants who disregarded her basic medical needs is indicative of a clinical context in which Black women are ignored and mistreated. The message sent, implicitly or explicitly, is that Black and Indigenous people are unruly and in need of control in clinical settings, lest we cause havoc as we perish.
Adding to this messaging is the choice by some jurisdictions to avoid collecting race-based health data about COVID-19 to support targeted interventions and vaccination programs in the communities hardest hit by the virus. This occurs despite demonstrable evidence to suggest that collection of race-based data prompts equity-oriented decision-making at a local level.
Instead, support for racialized communities is often left to advocates, clinicians and other professionals on the front lines of battling the virus who have long recognized that a race-conscious approach to health promotion and vaccine distribution will be key to breaking the pandemic’s hold on communities across the country.
The systematic neglect that afflicts Black communities in particular prompts a sense of distrust in public-health systems that is reflected in the much-debated “vaccination hesitancy” that Black Canadians show. One look at community-centred vaccination clinics in Upper Hammonds Plains, Rexdale or Montreal-Nord shows that the work of dedicated doctors, nurses, social workers and community volunteers disrupts these facile narratives.
When people feel heard and cared for, they show up to get vaccinated in droves. Far too often, however, these community voices are disregarded to no one’s benefit.
The two pandemics have also exposed how quickly policymakers turn to policing and punitive measures as a response to any kind of challenge. Mr. Floyd’s murder, as well as the police-involved deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore that occurred in the subsequent months, are part of a perpetual backdrop of violence committed by police forces against Black and Indigenous people.
It is worth noting, as many have, the origins of the police in slave patrols of the 19th century and that the original purpose of the RCMP – then the North-West Mounted Police – was to remove Indigenous peoples from their traditional territories.
But the police are deadly to Black and Indigenous people in the here and now, and that alone is a solid foundation for recent calls to defund – and abolish – the police. These sustained and vigorous organizing efforts have made significant advancements across North America: from removing resource officers from schools in Peel Region and an $11-million cut over two years to the police budget in Edmonton, to a 33-per-cent cut to police budgets in Austin, Tex.
Despite these important milestones, however, policy makers have tended toward either maintaining or increasing police budgets. In Minneapolis, talk of abolishing the police force has given way to modest cuts and accusations of obstructionism by the mayor. Meanwhile, city councils in Halifax, Saskatoon and Winnipeg all increased police budgets, while Calgary’s council gave the police more money than they were seeking.
That these budget increases emerged during COVID-19 despite unforeseen opposition indicates how much the pandemic has facilitated the radical expansion of police surveillance across the country, complete with “snitch lines” that encourage citizens to report their neighbours for protocol violations.
This shift toward “policing the pandemic,” as detailed by Alexander McClelland, an assistant professor of criminology at Carleton University, and Alex Luscombe, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, illuminates the racialized framings that underpin the enforcement of public health emergency legislation. Using police officers to enact orders under the pretext of protecting public health has worked in Hamilton to suppress dissent in tent cities against those very same forces, while enforced curfews in Montreal have led to fines for workers who are deemed to be flouting the rules – even if they carried authorization letters with them.
This approach looks less like health promotion as outlined in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, signed at an international conference organized in collaboration with the World Health Organization in 1986, and more like the deepening of a web of carceral institutions that abolitionist activists have warned us about for years.
We see a similarly troubling expansion of these carceral powers under the pretext of public health within Canada’s prisons. While some provinces wisely decided to release low-risk offenders at the behest of advocates to prevent devastating COVID-19 outbreaks in jails, prisoners in federal facilities have been subject to extended COVID-prompted “isolations” that may breach international standards for torture.
Not only have these cruelties proven ineffective to mitigate the sweeping outbreaks in many federal facilities, but they are also an outcome of the insufficient preventative measures taken in federal institutions to prevent the spread of the virus in the first place.
In times of crisis, it is intuitive for the citizenry to tacitly assent to restrictions that might otherwise seem like government overstep. A year ago, the idea of mask mandates, group size restrictions or curfews seemed ludicrous. And yet, here we are; the legitimacy of these measures is contrived from their careful design and the democratic promise that they are to be universally applied, limited in scope and temporary in nature.
But there is an acute danger to the amplification of carceral logics, punitive measures and police authority: It is far easier to expand power than it is to contract it. Even if we are able to conquer COVID-19 in the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that newfound police powers will be readily or willingly relinquished. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglass said in 1857. “It never did and it never will.”
Finally, the two pandemics raise an unavoidable moral question of how we understand social solidarity and the common good. COVID-19 has exposed not just cracks in our social fabric, but chasms.
The policy decisions that have been made during this moment of crisis were about much more than public health. They were, at base, about how we see ourselves as a collective, what we think we owe each other, who deserves to be protected, who should be shown care and concern, who must repel state violence and economic exploitation at every turn, and who must try to fend for themselves.
From the earliest days of the first wave, governments asked us for individual sacrifice for the common good. We changed our lives to protect this imagined community of people we have never seen or met. Our children didn’t go to school, we lost jobs, we didn’t get to bury our loved ones – all in the name of the common good.
And then we watched the video of George Floyd being tortured for eight minutes and 46 seconds. We collectively bore witness to a public lynching in the year 2020, committed by those sworn to protect and serve the common good.
One year ago, cities erupted as ordinary people took to the streets, in protest of the revelation, new to some, familiar to others, that the “common good” is commonly racist. For a moment, it seemed as though a racial reckoning, 400 years in the making, was at hand. For a moment, there was a spark of understanding that though public health and public safety are core functions of government, they frequently involve responses by the state that do more harm than good.
For a moment, there was wider recognition of the duplicitous treachery of a benign discourse of multicultural nationalism while vulnerable populations were immobilized or unable to shelter in place. For a moment, the reckoning seemed possible and then even likely, the public’s captivation genuine and sincere, as if the collateral damage of the pandemic wrought a collective aspiration that we might be able to substantiate a different kind of world on the other side of these entwined tragedies.
But it is now a year later, and we’ve been here before. These moments nearly always prove to be temperamental and temporary.
White American support for Black Lives Matter peaked at 43 per cent last June; that support has now dipped back down to around 37 per cent, the same level as when Mr. Floyd was still breathing. A full 50 per cent of white Americans currently oppose the movement altogether. The rebellions wrought by ordinary folks taking to the streets have been monetized and commodified.
Hollow statements against some kind of amorphous conceptualization of systemic racism have become an effective marketing strategy. Our collective memory of the uprisings has been sanitized to be more palatable to moderates, profitable to the professional class, and sanctioned by the same levels and forms of state power that continue to simultaneously ravage and neglect Black lives and communities.
Sure, steps have been taken and declarations made. Last month’s federal budget announced the government would take steps to fight systemic racism and empower communities. The same document provided an additional $75-million over the next five years to the RCMP to combat systemic racism, even as many are coming around to the idea that the police cannot be reformed, and racism cannot be extracted from the protectorate of the social order.
This is the core tension between a year of tentative and cautious optimism and the well-earned pessimism borne from decades of disappointment with just how fleeting these moments can be.
The two pandemics are interlocking, existential crises, but only one has been treated with the level of urgency required to make a real difference. The onset of COVID-19 was met with the mobilization of the scientific community, accelerated vaccine development, the advent of complicated provincial response systems and on-the-ground co-ordination of entire communities to ensure accessible testing and orderly vaccine distribution. With a little more than a year of decisive action, unprecedented investment, and individual and community sacrifice, we are turning a corner.
The same is not true of the other pandemic, 400 years in the making and still a formidable, resilient and deadly force. Anti-Black racism, and the white supremacy that underpins it, is an existential threat to us all. It fosters social, economic and ecological ruin through division and exploitation. It requires as transformative and all-encompassing an effort to disrupt it as did COVID-19.
The two pandemics were not spontaneous, or even unprecedented, really. Anti-Black racism did not “erupt” in the past year and cannot be resolved by book clubs, equity, diversity, and inclusion trainings and task forces, or good intentions. White supremacy operates at the core of our society and has done so for centuries. We’re not out of the woods; not by a long shot.
When COVID-19 strikes, individuals do not recover easily. Some have damaged organs or permanent lung problems, while others have mental-health issues that arise from the grief, loss, isolation and fatigue. Even for those who have not been ill, our lives have been forever altered.
The new variants of COVID-19 continue to mutate, transform and defy our efforts to bring an end to the pandemic. The toll on human life in this country – 25,000 dead, 1.2 million recovered and 1.3 million currently sick – weighs heavily on our collective consciousness.
The durability and long-term effects of the disease, the way it exposes the precarity and vulnerability of human life, the way it seeps into your mind, body and soul and messes with how you live, breathe, walk, act and exist in the world – this is also the delirious trickery of racism.
There will be no return to normal, after this. Besides, as the incomparable poet Dionne Brand wrote last summer, what kind of person would mourn the normalcy that killed Mr. Floyd? After a year, we are still in a moment of flux, but also a moment ripe with potential.
This is what the late sociologist Stuart Hall might have called a “politics without guarantees.” We cannot be certain that what will emerge in this reconfigured, postpandemic world will be any kinder or more egalitarian than any previous iterations.
There is nothing that guarantees the moral arc of the universe will ultimately bend toward justice. Overcoming the two pandemics will require struggle and vigilance; building the world we envision will take more than a year.
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