by Tina Sikka
29th May 2020

Racism in the US and elsewhere is the socially circumscribed and hierarchical categorisation of perceived phenotypical differences—a categorisation that perpetuates inequality and oppression. COVID-19, and the disproportionate way in which the virus is impacting Black and other minority ethnic communities, has laid bare how ‘racial belonging’ helps determine who lives and dies.  

And yet, despite the evident nature of these numbers, it is important to be very careful with these statistics – particularly with respect to how they are gathered, framed (particularly by media) and disseminated (whether through traditional or social media). The chief concern is that these figures are being used in ways that reinscribe race as a biological fact and, in doing so, perpetuate erroneous assumptions about innate group differences. In other words, they are being used in ways that make race real.  

The history of the association of disease with racialised bodies is troubling. The linking of Chinese people, and later Mexican Americans, with the bubonic plague, as well as Black populations with syphilis and then HIV/AIDS, speaks to how social structures that make some communities especially vulnerable to disease become biologised. Myths that Black people are immune to COVID-19, or are carriers, or that all ethnically Chinese people are biogenetically susceptible are being used to reinforce racial differences in spite of the scientific consensus that race is a social construct 

We need to interrogate the collection of race-based data on COVID-19 infections and mortality rates and ask: to what ends are these being put? What methodological safeguards are being put in place, and how robust are we being in communicating the science? Crucially, how can we use this information to make concrete the ways in which health status is co-constituted with and by structures of racialisation, not biology? Answering this call can lead to concrete, transformational changes that tackle the roots of systemic racism 

Unfortunately, much of the data on race and health has not led to substantive changes to health outcomes. One of the most troubling consequences has been the reification of race, where racialised groups are connected to particular diseases which is in turn used to justify biogenetic myths of innate susceptibility. It is a very short leap from the belief that particular groups of people are more predisposed to disease (due to socio-economic factors), to the conclusion that there is something about this group that is less than, diseaseprone, and suspect particularly when there are phenotypical differences to latch on to. Myths propelled by social media, the history of the race-disease nexus, and politicians who lend validity to these myths make the ethical communication of scientific information challenging 

A salient example of this can be found in the statements of United States Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor, who recently made the case that the terrifying levels COVID-19 related deaths and infections in the Black community are a product of health conditions that they themselves, genetically and behaviourally, were responsible for: 

“… If you’re going to look at the fundamental reason, African Americans are 60% more likely to have diabetes. Now, if you look at the NIH website, that would say that’s for obesity, for genetic reasons, perhaps other things.”

Cassidy, in making this statement, demonstrates how race, health, and science can be used to justify, rather than challenge, racial oppression. 

The de-contextualised use of race-based disease statistics has other unintended consequences. Foremost is the way in which the categories of race and disease become overly expansive. As a result, the science (and the communication of that science) fails to point out how other sites of disparity age, gender, class, sexuality, dis/ability intersects with race to produce particular kinds of susceptibilities. This would require much a much more intersectional approach.  

The collection and dissemination of these statistics is also failing to interrogate the broadness of the category ‘Black,’ ‘Chinese,‘Indian’ etc. (what do we mean by these terms? who is included?). This risks overlooking differences within racialised groups leads to a form of bioessentialism wherein perceived differences are seen as biological and only biological, risking further stigmatization. We must question just how rigorous and systematic the collection of this data is and the ways in which said data rely on assumed identifications by researchers or self-identification by patients which can lead to misleading results 

Taken together, what becomes clear is that we must be careful about how we produce, interpret, and use the data to demonstrate the correlation between race and COVID-19 related deaths and infections. Moreover, we need to do this from a place of social justice and critical science which will result in better knowledge and better public policy while also challenging racialisation as an acceptable practice in science, politics, and public life. 

Dr. Tina Sikka is a Lecturer in Media, Culture and Heritage at the University of Newcastle in the UK. Her current research interests include the ways in which gender and culture intersects with science and technology using food and environmental technologies as case studies.


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