April 14, 2020

WAITE | Viruses Should Be Impartial

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This past week, I realized that as a black woman, I question why everything must be about race even  — perhaps even more than any ignorant, intolerant and/or privileged person in the comment section underneath “social justice” posts across social media platforms. I question why the color of my skin seems to be a factor in every part of my life. And I have every reason to.

The first reading assigned in my introductory labor history course examined the construction of race in colonial America from 1500 to 1770 through the analysis of travel accounts and writings that described — and thus disparaged — indigenous women of Africa and the Americas. Writings characterized by erroneous observations regarding African women’s propensity for easy childbirth convinced colonizers that the women were more animal than human and could therefore perform hard labor, by producing both crops and other laborers.

Two months before I was assigned this reading, I saw a NowThis video that showed clips of the House Subcommittee on Health hearing that discussed high maternal mortality in America. Specifically, it pointed out how black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes than white women. And even when you control for socioeconomic factors, “a wealthy black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to die or to have a baby die than a poor white woman without a high school diploma.”

I do not remember if I was reminded of this video while reading the aforementioned chilling five century old accounts about my ancestors. I was, however, reminded of this video while reading the New York Times article that informed me that the coronavirus is disproportionately infecting and killing black Americans.

Reportedly, much of this disproportionality has to do with other disproportionalities: economic divides of black and brown people, less access to healthcare, environmental disparities, health disparities, higher death rates and other socioeconomic factors (including lack of hospital resources in predominantly black areas). All of these factors are predicated on lasting structural racism embedded into nearly all of America’s institutions — including the healthcare system. But we have been over all of this before. COVID-19 is just a red highlighter that illuminates the tremendous inequality in our country.

Upon its arrival, the coronavirus was almost immediately characterized with racist rhetoric. And now, as the plague continues, race has become an important factor in attributing devastatingly disparate results.

I am struck by the reality that I can go to a hospital today and — beyond any socioeconomic factors that may put me at a disadvantage — sinister echoes from centuries ago can impact how I will be treated. Implicit biases regarding the anatomical makeup of my black body can impact how doctors will proceed with my treatment. The false assumptions and pseudo science that led colonizers to believe that African women deliver their children with little to no pain lead to the criminality that causes black women to die at egregiously disproportionate rates during childbirth in the modern era. Similarly, because of biases in the health care system, recent data is already exemplifying that doctors may be less likely to refer black Americans for coronavirus testing when they show signs of infection.

Though not everything is about race, race is relevant and pervasive in virtually every situation. Even in situations as fundamentally human as childbirth and afflictions as seemingly impartial as a virus.

 

Sidney Malia Waite is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at smw327@cornell.edu. Waite, What? runs every other Friday this