This is my nightmare: Covid-19 meets racism meets the killing of yet another Black person by a police officer.
Some weeks back, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, I had a discussion about worst-case scenarios with a colleague in emergency management. Top of mind for him as we head into hurricane season was the fear of a natural disaster in the midst of this pandemic.
My biggest fear as a Black woman and public health leader was the all-too-likely murder of an unarmed Black person at the hands of police leading to mass protests amid the virulence of two infectious diseases: racism and Covid-19. And here we are, a few weeks later, in the nightmarish scenario I can’t unsee: Black America and allies, rightfully angry and fed up with 400-plus years of racist violence and white supremacy, taking to the streets to protest in cities around the country and the world.
As we watched the gruesome suffocation and murder of George Floyd, we did so in self-isolation — left to scream and cry in horror alone during a pandemic that’s disproportionately snatching the lives and economic footing of Black people. It came on the painful heels of the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Michael Brown Jr., Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Emmett Till — to name just a few — along with the millions of Black bodies lost to slavery, Jim Crow, preventable health inequities, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Covid-19 continues to unearth the racist and unjust cracks in our society. Black people make up the majority of low-wage workers who remain on the frontlines in positions that don’t permit them the privilege to work from home, leverage paid sick leave, or access personal protective equipment.
Thanks to a history of redlining and race-based residential segregation, many of these low-wage workers are living in close, cramped housing that makes social distancing all but impossible. On top of this, a dearth of federal- and state-level racial and ethnic data on Covid-19 cases and deaths continues to devalue the humanity of Black people and leave us in the dark about the true impacts of this pandemic on our communities — all while resources have been inequitably allocated to favor communities with food security, insurance coverage, internet access, and reliable transportation. Let me be clear: It’s racism — and not race — that’s the culprit here.
Some of the symptoms of Covid-19 are temporary loss of senses, hallucinations, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. The symptoms of racism are strikingly similar.
Temporary loss of senses: see Amy Cooper, who distorted the voice of a calm, measured Black man and bird watcher in New York’s Central Park into one that was threatening her life. And cc Carolyn Bryant Donham, who did the same to Emmett Till.
Hallucinations: see Darren Wilson, the killer of Michael Brown Jr., in Ferguson, Mo., who described the unarmed 18-year old as a “demon, and Hulk Hogan-like figure” as justification for shooting him.
Difficulty breathing? See centuries of transcripts citing police officers stating “shortness of breath” or “trouble breathing” moments after the murder of a Black person.
Black America is very clear on the pathology, symptoms, diagnosis, manifestations, evolution, and antidote for the malignant disease of racism, yet it remains largely unrecognized, undiagnosed, untreated, and unbothered in white America. While a vaccine for Covid-19 is in development, no sweeping cure currently exists for racism.
Protesting racism is necessary. Doing it during a pandemic, however, is my deepest public health nightmare. It’s nearly impossible to stay 6 feet apart in a crowd and there’s an increased chance of person-to-person Covid-19 transmission in a crowd that is already at heightened risk.
There will never be a convenient time to dismantle racism. Protests of the civil rights movement came with the risk of beatings, water hoses, and deadly force — not unlike what we’re seeing today. But the stakes are even higher in the center of a deadly and insidious pandemic. Protester or not, all of us can take action to protect the safety and health of the Black community and stand in solidarity in this pivotal moment.
If you choose to protest publicly, wear masks and gloves, especially if the march or demonstration involves holding hands. Carry hand sanitizer and try your best to keep 6 feet of empty space between you and others, even while marching. When you get home, immediately wash your clothes and take a shower.
State and local leaders should prioritize safety and equity for Black communities in their Covid-19 response. They should reconsider the use of pepper spray, since the coughing it provokes increases the risk transmitting Covid-19. Law enforcement officers should be trained in equity and de-escalation tactics.
Non-Black allies can stand with us in solidarity and unity. The white community, in particular, should leverage its position of privilege to make systemic, anti-racist changes, starting with themselves, their families, and their networks.
I’m tired and I know you are too. Racism is exhausting: It was created to exhaust our bodies, our resources, and our talents. But we can’t let it. In a system that was never created for us to survive, self-preservation is a form of resistance.
Covid-19 shouldn’t be ravaging the Black community. George Floyd didn’t have to die. His murderers should be in jail. Black people shouldn’t have to justify their humanity every second of every day. Yet all of that is why we are where we are as a country today — full of unrest, anger, resentment, and hurt.
The layers of pain and anguish are unspeakable and the Black community is the only one told to swallow the pain and move on. This time, we refuse to.
Lauren Powell leads the work of Time’s Up in the health care industry. She previously led the Office of Health Equity for the state of Virginia’s Department of Health.