How have responses to the COVID-19 pandemic interacted with racism and xenophobia?

The global nature of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the emphasis that “we are in this together” (Bonilla-Silva, 2020: 8). However, when looking at the official statistics, there is clearly a disproportionate presence of individuals from black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) groups among those who have died of COVID-19, compared to their numbers in the population. When interpreting these statistics, the differential mortality rates of COVID-19 is symbolic of how racism engages with the presence and burden of the past. The uneven effects of the COVID-19 virus across racialised groups are associated with longstanding structural racism. Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being emphasises that “the past that is not the past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (2016: 9). Thus, this disproportionate presence is emblematic of a linear trajectory from a colonial past and foregrounds an underlying eugenic ideology of disease and violence being “reserved” (Butler, 2010: 9) for, and used against, the dispossessed. This is also illustrative of the ways in which anti-blackness and anti-brownness are embedded in the past, present and future of post-modern society. The COVID-19 pandemic has therefore, revealed the ongoing racisms of unfinished emancipation, which has led to the global recognition of racism as “the other pandemic” (Godlee, 2020: 1).

Race, racism, and xenophobia

The way in which our understanding of what constitutes ‘race’ in society over the decades has changed is symbolic of the multiple definitions of race. These differential interpretations are also representative of the fact that ‘race’ is a complex and ever-changing concept, but also lends itself well to the fact that the construction of race is shaped by colonial knowledge production from the West. In light of this view, ‘race’ will be understood as categorisation and a force which organises society – “the floating signifier” (Hall, 1997). It is this categorisation and embodiment of particular meanings about different ‘races’ that can lead to many forms of racisms. Similarly, xenophobia is often emphasised as “fear of the foreign or foreigner” which implies that this “phobia” is a natural process. However, it is important to understand the ways in which this “fear” justifies discrimination and abuse. Said (1978) argued that this discourse of “fear” served to justify and normalise imperial domination and the subjugation of the colonial “other”. Hence, xenophobia can be seen as a mechanism that validates racisms.

Christina Sharpe posits racism, as “the engine that drives the ship of state’s national and imperial projects” (Sharpe, 2016: 3). Positioning racism as an “engine that drives”, echoes ideas of racism as an active process and procedure, and not a fact or a thing.  It is vital to acknowledge that there are many expressions and forms of racisms, in different times and places, and these different forms can co-exist at the same time and place. In light of this view, using a Fanonian definition of racism enables a comprehension of diverse forms of racism, as he highlights the attitudes, assumptions and ideas involved in his postulation of racism. Fanon (1967) posits racism as a global hierarchy of superiority and inferiority along the “line of the human”. Fanon argued that individuals above the line of the human are in the “zone of being”, and are socially perceived through human and social rights. Those individuals who are below the line of the human are in the “zone of non-being”, and are viewed as “infra-human” (Gilroy, 1993)they do not have their humanity socially recognised (Fanon, 1967: 86). Fanon uses the concept of dialectics of recognition to illustrate how racism presents whiteness as the “normal” mode of “humanness”, but blackness and brownness as whiteness’s ontological “others”, as “abnormal” and subhuman. In addition, racialisation occurs through the marking of “bodies”, whereby some “bodies” are racialised as superior whilst others are racialised as inferior (Fanon, 1967). The COVID-19 pandemic has therefore highlighted the experiences of racialised individuals, and how this racialisation has led to “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Gilmore, 2007: 247).   

COVID-19 pandemic, racism, and xenophobia

One major way in which responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have collided with racism and xenophobia is through the inequalities in health; namely the racial disparities in mortality rates. As cases in the UK increased, a troubling dynamic emerged, whereby individuals of black and Asian ethnicity were more likely to be diagnosed, to demonstrate worse health outcomes, and to have an increased risk of death from COVID-19. Statistics revealed that people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, other Asian, black Caribbean and other black ethnicity had between 10% and 50% higher risk of death when compared to white British (PHE, 2020). Similarly, BAME patients account for 34% of the patients admitted to UK intensive care units with COVID-19, whilst only comprising 17% of the UK population. The deaths of 119 NHS staff have been analysed and the findings show that 53% of those healthcare workers who died were not born in the UK (Cook et al, 2020). This evidentiates how citizenship intersects with racism in experiences of privilege and oppression. It shows the role of xenophobia and “the power of nationalism to condone and authorise violence,” making some lives less important (Les Back, 2011: 308). This is visibly alarming and reiterates Bonilla-Silva’s argument that the pain and suffering of this COVID-19 pandemic are not evenly distributed across all segments of the population. The enormous mortality experienced by minoritised populations emphasises the “tremendous levels of inequality in our nation”, and foregrounds how class, race, gender, and other social divisions “exacerbate the pandemic’s impact” (Bonilla-Silva, 2020: 7-8).

Judith Butler’s framework

This intimate relationship between the historical past and the historical present (Browne, 2015) is vital because it highlights the ongoing systemic and medical racism. It posits racism as a public health issue because it kills people (Godlee, 2020) and renders some lives as disposable. Butler, in her Frames of War, speculates the question: When is life grievable? Butler discusses the vulnerability of certain lives due to the differential framing of violence, whereby the interpretation of violence depends on the “recognisability” of one’s “personhood”. Butler uses the concept of “apprehension” to refer to the mode of knowing what is not recognised and “intelligibility” as a schema that creates spheres of what is known. In light of this view, life has to be intelligible as life in order to become recognisable (Butler, 2009: 7). Hence, the racial violence enacted on Dr. Susan Moore is not recognised as violence, and her life is not recognised as injured or lost because she was not recognised by the white gaze as living in the first place (Butler, 2009), thus showing the ways in which “black deaths are produced as normative” (Sharpe, 2016: 7) due to racism.

Comorbidities in patients with COVID-19

The presentation of comorbidities in patients with COVID-19 also reflects racial inequalities in health. In the UK, diabetes was mentioned on 21% of death certificates where COVID-19 was also mentioned. The severity of COVID-19 and mortality are associated with obesity, long-term conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and coming from a socioeconomically deprived population – risk factors which are more common in minoritised ethnic populations (PHE, 2020). The proportion of comorbidities was higher in all BAME groups in comparison to white ethnic groups, and was 43% in the Asian group and 45% in the black group. This is an urgent public health emergency, yet the language used naturalises this disparity in health.

Thus, it is important to understand the conditions that enable this to be “common”. Describing this as a commonality among minoritised ethnic groups shows the complicity, and this is an example of colour-blind racism in the form of abstract liberalism (explaining racial matters in an abstract, decontextualized manner) in shaping how we understand the differential mortality rates of COVID-19 (Bonilla-Silva, 2020: 1). This also exposes the racial implications of statements of unity during the pandemic, because it fails to recognise the ways in which global economic and political structures lead to a greater disparity in how “we” are exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, the inadequate explanations of why there are racial disparities in morbidity and mortality allows room for the cultural framework to explain differential mortality, when in fact structural and medical racism addresses these health disparities. The communities which have been disinvested in are comprised of minoritised ethnic populations and immigrants, who, as a result, are also more likely to experience higher rates of poverty. There is a correlation between lower income and a worsened health status, which is a product of global capitalism. Minority ethnic groups experience immense inequalities, which, coupled with interpersonal discrimination, generate chronic, racialised stress among minority ethnic groups, which “correlates with poor health outcomes” (Bonilla-Silva, 2020: 6). This foregrounds how racism, is a cofactor for COVID-19 and a key social determinant of health (Godlee, 2020), thus showing how responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have intersected with medical and systemic racism and xenophobia.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled a close visual analysis of the conditions that signal medical professionals mistreat BAME patients and citizens with little consequence. This framing of black and brown people as inferior, and the ontological conditions of blackness and brownness, is emblematic of the ways in which violence enacted on black and brown lives is not recognised as violence (Butler, 2009). This is why reports about the disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19 are released with no solutions. Analysing the epistemological violence and racial disparities in mortality rates of Covid-19 in a decontextualised manner; and the colour-blind racism in the forms of abstract liberalism and naturalisation, have had, and continue to have, harmful implications for the lives that have been, and are being, lost, making it difficult to envision policies needed to address these violent racisms (Bonilla-Silva, 2020: 1) and help vulnerable populations. This highlights that we cannot tackle COVID-19 until we tackle racism (Godlee, 2020) and furthers questions such as: ‘How do we decolonise the inequalities of the western-centric modern world system that positions some lives as more disposable than others?’; ‘How do we recognise black lives as lost if they’re not recognised as lives to begin with?’. It is, thus, tenable to reiterate that #BlackLivesMatter. The public uprising and protests over how anti-black racism in the UK, US, and worldwide intersected with the spread of COVID-19, after the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have prompted many to recognise racism as “the biggest public health crisis of our time” (Kiley, 2020).

In sum, although race is often postulated as an “idea”, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ways in which race and racism as the “pre-condition[s] for exercising the right to kill” continue to decide “what must live and what must die” (Foucault, 1977: 254-256), thus dismantling the illusions of being in a postcolonial society. The dismissal and refutation of slavery’s continuing legacy employs the language of progress, which establishes the seclusion and insignificance of the past (Dube, 2009: 771). Yet the past matters in explaining contemporary social phenomena, for it echoes how “things [are] not better in this ‘new world’: the subjections of constant and overt racism and isolation continue” (Sharpe, 2016: 4) Hence, equality and justice are only possible if we begin producing a more egalitarian set of conditions for “recognisability” (Butler, 2009: 6).  The creation of new “frames” will enhance the possibility of recognition of black and brown lives as lives (Butler, 2009: 12); aid in reforming the political system; and demand for the enhanced protection of black and brown lives. New frames will allow black and brown people the ability and the access to inhabit the Fanonian “zone of being” (Fanon, 1967: 86). Notwithstanding, the aim is to create a new bodily ontology which rethinks the meanings of life, death, personhood, precariousness, violence, vulnerability, and the many problematic ways in which colonial inequalities get renewed in our present order. 

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Lavínia Dos Santos is a Sociology student at the University of Warwick. Her passion and interests include reading, theorising inequalities and advocating for black lives globally.

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