Racism and Epidemics from the Plague to Covid-19

by Karyn Pomerantz and KT Conner

Social Murder: “Infection Meets Inequality” 

A NYC physician described the Covid-19 pandemic as “infection meets inequality.” As the pandemic spreads here in the US, evidence shows that it reflects the same racist health and social inequities that capitalism created in the 15th Century. 

This post offers examples of racism during times of plagues and other epidemics, and reports early April 2020 data on Covid-19 morbidity and mortality rates among different racial and ethnic categories. These revelations of disproportionate deaths and illness have elicited vows to change the underlying causes of such inequity. This blog argues that the root cause is capitalism and that no reform, including elections, will eradicate racism, change the ways capitalism operates, or weaken the powerful owners of corporations and financial institutions. Capitalism cannot exist without racism, and we cannot live with capitalism. 

Historical Examples of Racism During Epidemics

Data extracted from the Washington Post, 4-12-2020, A14. 

The history of epidemics reveals the extent of scapegoating and violent attacks on vulnerable neighborhoods, sick people, and health workers. It also includes stories of people supporting one another as we see in many places today. 

Pandemics are certainly not new, but the rate of pandemics, as depicted in the graph, has increased over the last 60 years. The bubonic plague of 1347 killed 25 million Europeans out of a population of 400 million. People scapegoated the “other” as vectors of disease, particularly Jewish people whom they accused of poisoning the water.  Pogroms destroyed Jewish towns and populations. In later centuries, Italian citizens also blamed Jewish people and also killed them. 

Cholera outbreaks generated “cholera wars” in the 19th Century in Europe. In this case, workers and peasants attacked hospitals, “pest houses,” doctors, nurses, and transporters, suspecting that medical staff were killing patients and digging up graves for dissection. In the US in 1832, the public attacked Irish Catholic people during the cholera epidemic.  

During the smallpox epidemics in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in the US, people attacked black people who had high rates of smallpox blaming them for eating a poor diet that caused the disease. (We see this now when people claim unhealthy behaviors and lifestyle cause higher rates of Covid-19 among black residents). Based on the high rate of infection among freed black workers, former slave owners called for their return to the “safety” of enslavement, which would guarantee a free labor supply. Racist theories characterized freed black people as inferior and unsanitary. Instead of providing health care, doctors adopted eugenic policies, using abortion and forced sterilization to control the population, building even more well-founded distrust of the medical profession.

People of Asian descent have been regularly accused of spreading infectious diseases, often driven by economic reasons. In San Francisco during the mid-19th Century, white businessmen viewed Chinese people as competition for business while white workers feared losing jobs to a cheaper labor force.  Accusing them of being dirty, foreign, and diseased, white gangs cut off their hair, chased them down streets, and murdered them. The railroad barons who used (and murdered) Chinese RR workers didn’t need their labor any more so their partners in the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that eliminated Chinese immigration until 1972.

Public health agencies quarantined Chinese residents in San Francisco during the 1900 smallpox epidemic and forced them to take unapproved vaccines.  At the same time in Honolulu, the Board of Health burnt homes owned by Asians that they deemed unsanitary, causing a fire that destroyed 5,000 homes in the neighborhood.

Redevelopment motivated businessmen to demean Asian neighborhoods as dirty and unhealthy. The Board of Health destroyed Chinese areas in Reno, Nevada leaving the land available to realtors and developers. In similar ways in 1924 during a bubonic plague outbreak in LA, businessmen declared Mexican American neighborhoods unclean and destroyed them, opening them to development.

 In 2018, Congress passed legislation limiting Chinese student immigration. During Covid-19, as Trump labels the pandemic the “Chinese flu,” there have been over 1000 verbal or physical attacks against Asians and boycotts of Asian businesses, such as Chinese restaurants. 

Racism against Chinese people serves political purposes. China is the US’ major economic competition (as well as the major owner of US debt). US rulers need the public to support its anti-China policies. Meanwhile, states and hospitals rely on Chinese manufacturers to sell them protective gear.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic from the 1980s to today also features scapegoating, shaming, and stigmatizing. People with HIV suffered from negligence, job and housing discrimination, and some assaults. Gay men are sentenced to death today in Uganda and forced into the closet by Muslim and Christian religious leaders in many countries, including the US. People most marginalized, such as sex workers, those jobless, incarcerated, and homeless, transgender people, black women, and undocumented immigrants, are ostracized and placed in high risk situations. 

In response, activists mobilized militantly, taking over the NIH campus and the FDA to demand fast track development of medications.  They also continue to lead the fight for global treatment, housing, and harm reduction policies, such as needle exchange, Narcon, access to drugs and condoms, and supervised injection centers. 

This fierce activism serves as a model of struggle we can use now to demand reforms. However, nothing short of revolution will replace the “new” or “old” normal of capitalism to create a world free of racism and other forms of oppression.

Reports of Disproportionate Covid-19 Risks, Infections, and Deaths

Racism during epidemics becomes even more virulent and viral, especially when diseases become identified with a racialized group. Right wing racists blame lifestyle behaviors while ignoring racism as the cause of disparities:

those underlying maladies have a large behavioral component that remains within individual control. …Underclass whites have similar health problems because they, too, are making bad lifestyle choices… (MacDonald, 4-10-2020).

Liberal and conservative politicians leave hundreds of thousands of imprisoned people to die behind bars, showing how little they value poor, black, and Latin people. It is another opportunity to hate black and immigrant people.

Today, racists attack US residents of Asian descent thinking they cause the spread of Covid-19, a situation heightened by the inflammatory anti-immigrant environment cultivated by the Obama and Trump Administrations. 

Berkeley Professor john a. powell counters this blame game:

“Sometimes they’re Muslim, sometimes they’re black, sometimes they’re Mexican, sometimes they’re Asian… But there is no them. There’s only us, and we have to figure out how to go forward where everybody belongs and nobody dominates.”  (https://news.berkeley.edu/2020/02/12/coronavirus-fear-of-asians-rooted-in-long-american-history-of-prejudicial-policies/)

Racism Drives Disproportionate Rates of Covid-19 Risks, Infections, Deaths 

Although we don’t have complete demographic data, these reports mirror other disproportionately poorer health indicators for black, Latin, Asian, and native people, and high levels of ill health among white people as well.

As a New Orleans resident from the Lower Ninth Ward decimated by Hurricane Katrina said:

“Life in this neighborhood is an underlying condition: hard jobs, long hours, bad pay, no health insurance, no money, bad diet. That’s every day.  … Wearing a mask won’t protect us from our history.” (Washington Post, 4-12-2020).

As of early April, these indicators reveal some of the racist distributions of Covid-19 risks, infections, and deaths. Because wealthier and whiter people have better access to tests, and many areas do not collect racial and ethnic data, these data may be distorted by underreporting the number of infections among black, incarcerated immigrants, and native people. 

  • Native Americans are extremely vulnerable to Covid-19. They suffer 600 times the rates of death from TB and over double the rate of diabetes compared to whites.  Twenty-five percent (25%) of the people under 65 years have no health insurance. Other rampant co-existing diseases and overcrowded living conditions often without water imperil the lives of five (5) million American Indians and Alaskan natives. In New Mexico, Navaho members account for 37% of infections while comprising about 10% of the population (New Mexico In Depth, 4-14-2020. COVID-19 strikes Native Americans at high rates in New Mexico).  Those living on tribal lands are 16 times more likely to die.
  • Reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, prisons and jails sentence people, disproportionately black and Latin, to sicken and die. With nowhere to distance themselves or access soap, hand sanitizer, or masks, people in jails and prisons are sitting ducks for illness and death. Cook County Jail in Chicago is now a major epicenter of the disease. NY Governor Cuomo, admired as a strong leader, refuses to release prisoners or provide protection while ordering them to produce sanitizer for 65 cents an hour. (As of 4-9-2020, prisoners in Washington state went on strike to demand protection and release, and detained immigrants are planning hunger strikes).
  • Immigrant detention centers now hold 38,000 adults and children in crowded, dangerous conditions only a virus could love. Thirty-five (35) have died as of early April. ICE has the authority to release everyone. One woman reported to Common Dreams: 

“80 women share three toilets, six showers, and eight telephones. We sleep in bunk beds just a few feet apart. There is no hand sanitizer, and the guards come in and out of the dorm without wearing masks or gloves.”

  • Black residents of majority black counties have three (3) times the infection rate of residents in majority white counties and six (6) times the death rate.
  • Milwaukee County, Wisconsin: Black residents comprise 26% of the population and bear 81% of its 27 deaths.
  • Michigan:  Black residents comprise 14% of the state’s population, but bear 35% of cases and 40% of deaths. 
  • Louisiana: The predominantly black Orleans Parish reported 40% of the state’s deaths; 70% of the state’s deaths were black residents although they represented 32% of the state’s population.

Other state and local data show the same patterns. This is no coincidence!

Explanations of These Inequalities: Biology, Behavior or Racism?

Do these indicators prove that black and native people are biologically inferior or behaviorally reckless? Theories of biological determinism and sociobiology attribute bad outcomes, whether test scores, unemployment rates, or disease, to inherent, immutable physical characteristics. Lifestyle explanations call for individual responsibility to adopt healthy practices, totally ignoring the options people have to survive.  If you can’t change biology or behavior, why bother improving living and working conditions? The rulers have used these lies for centuries to justify slavery, poverty, and unemployment.

“And Americans are blaming black people. To explain the disparities in the mortality rate, too many politicians and commentators are noting that black people have more underlying medical conditions but, crucially, they’re not explaining why. Or they blame the choices made by black people, or poverty, or obesity—but not racism.” (Kendi, 4-14-2020)

There is no evidence that people placed in different racial or ethnic categories have different genes, but the ruling class treats people differently causing worse health outcomes in the most oppressed groups. We cannot allow people to interpret these racist differentials as proof that black people are in any way inferior to others.

Some of these inequitable conditions during the time of Covid-19 include:

Testing Disparities. Wealthier neighborhoods with predominantly white residents have more access to tests that identify people with Covid-19 and increase their chances for treatment. In Nashville, test kits and protective gear took until March 30 to arrive in predominantly black areas where African American workers from Meharry Medical College administered tests as the health department tested in more affluent neighborhoods. Los Angeles reported higher Covid-19 rates among higher income white people because they had been tested. In addition, most testing sites require people to have cars to use the drive-through sites. In New Orleans, Louisiana, an epicenter, CrescentCare is the only organization in the state that serves people who walk in for tests.

Socioeconomic Oppression.  Capitalists, whether earlier plantation owners or corporate CEOs today, require racism to earn super profits and to maintain their power by dividing us. 

Cuts in food stamps, under funded education, low paid labor, restricted health insurance, poor or no housing, no paid sick leave, and crowded public transportation save the bosses money, and incarceration locks up people most likely to rebel. 

Because of racist policies and economics, black residents in the US have:

  • higher rates of renting that increase the risk of homelessness and lowers the potential to acquire wealth, 
  • over twice the rate of unemployment compared to whites
  • higher rates of incarceration, aggressive policing, and death penalty convictions,
  • lower wages (50% less income than whites in Milwaukee) and more poverty, 
  • crowded bus trips and essential (or “sacrificial”) front line jobs that increase the risk of exposure,
  • less access to and lower quality of healthcare, 
  • the constant stress of discrimination and disrespect that weakens the immune system and damages mental health, 
  • homes and jobs with greater environmental and occupational hazards, and
  • a greater risk to die from rationing. 

Attempts to ration ventilators, tests, and protection pose a grave threat to people of color, poor people, unemployed workers, older adults, and people with chronic illness. These decisions will increase fatal racist disparities. Capitalists value people for their ability to produce profit. When they are too old, sick, jobless, and not white, their lives are devalued. The Nazis called people with mental illness, disabilities and old age “useless eaters,” people who consumed but did not produce. We need to organize against such rationing policies. 

On the other hand, there is an explosion of mutual aid efforts, resource sharing, volunteering, and activism. Crankyqueer.org is organizing nationally to prevent devaluing people with disabilities; there are many others. The Violence Interrupters deliver food to impoverished families in SE Washington, DC to head off desperate attempts to secure food. 

Epidemics can bring out the best and worst in governments and people. Today, some European governments outdo the US by providing workers with 80% of their salaries, jobs, and health care. Of course, this is in their interest to revive their economies, but the US pales in comparison, offering a measly $1200 during the national emergency. China delivered baskets of food to quarantined people in Wuhan while US food banks are running out of supplies, and farmers are destroying food like milk and onions due to oversupply!  US states compete for vital supplies while Asian countries manufactured millions of masks and ventilators, and now sell them to US hospitals. As we see, these horrible conditions of hunger, economic insecurity, and poor health care hit black, Latin, native, and poor people the hardest. It is truly US capitalism run amok.

Racist Ideology

Racism also includes ideas that blame and scapegoat people. Racist ideas keep many from uniting to rebel against this. These ideas justify exploitation and divert people from blaming capitalism. As Ibram Kendi stresses in How to be an Anti-Racist, racist policies lead to racist attitudes. There is nothing micro about this aggression.

There is no reason to believe that these atrocious practices and ideas will end after the pandemic subsides. They are stitched inextricably into the structures of capitalism. Only a new system built on equity that has a commitment to anti-racist politics and the organization to run it can improve our lives and promote health.


Testing inequities in Nashville: Racial Bias Showing Up In Coronavirus Testing And Treatment : Shots – Health News


Early Data Shows African Americans Have Contracted and Died of Coronavirus at an Alarming Rate

Vulnerable American Indians Are Preparing for the Worst. Washington Post, April 5, 2020, pages A1, 21.

Study: Black Americans Falling In and Dying at Disproportionately High Rates. Washington Post, April 8, 2020, pages A1, 13.

Ford C. et al. Racism in the Time of Covid-19. Racism in the Time of COVID-19 Viewed 4-9-2020.

Shoichet CE. What historians hear as Trump describes coronavirus. March 17, 2020.
Abbott C. The ‘Chinese Flu’ Is Part of a Long History of Racializing Disease.  March 17, 2020. When Racism and Disease Spread Together
Cohn SK, Jr. Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS. Tantor Audible, 2018.

MacDonald H. No, the coronavirus isn’t racist. The Spectator, 4-12-2020. https://spectator.us/coronavirus-racist-african-americans/

Kendi IX. Stop Blaming Black People for the Coronavirus. The Atlantic. 4-14-2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/race-and-blame/609946/

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