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Racism and pandemics: Connections go back centuries, NH professors say

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 7/9/2020 11:46:16 AM

In a widely distributed 1793 pamphlet, Philadelphia writer Mathew Carey accused African Americans of profiteering off of the yellow fever epidemic and plundering houses of the sick. Around the same time, other racist epidemic-related narratives emerged, including those accusing African Americans of not doing enough to control the epidemic.

In response to Carey’s pamphlet, Black writers Richard Allen and Absalom Jones published their own pamphlet that detailed the actions of African Americans to fight the disease within their communities.

Understanding how echoes of those same racist narratives from over 200 years ago today persist as some government officials in 2020 discuss the coronavirus pandemic is crucial, says Kabria Baumgartner, professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire.

“We want to write against those narratives that would blame victims for diseases that they get,” Baumgartner said.

Baumgartner will deliver a digital presentation for NH Humanities this Friday, July 10 about how narratives surrounding the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia may compare to narratives taking shape today, and how those narratives can be identified and countered.

“What I’m interested in is this idea of how we construct narratives, particularly around race at difficult moments in history. And those difficult moments can be brought on by many different things. So in 1793, it’s disease. In 2019 and 2020, it’s once again disease, and in the last month, it’s been about institutional racism and systemic racism,” Baumgartner said.

In the case of race, disease and death, racial narratives surrounding communities of color during epidemics and pandemics place blame on groups for contracting or not doing their part to contain disease, even though those same groups are disproportionately impacted by it because of systemic racism, Baumgartner says.

In April, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams addressed communities of color in a White House press briefing, stating they “are not helpless” in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Some found those remarks offensive as they were targeted at communities of color, who had been disproportionately impacted by the virus.

Baumgartner in particular pointed to comments made by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on CNN in May, where he said that African Americans and minorities are “particularly at risk here because of significant underlying disease health disparities and disease comorbidities.” Azar clarified he was not blaming individuals for health concerns.

Early rumors circulating on the internet sent the false and dangerous message that Black people were immune to COVID-19.

“I’m always very worried when scientists claim that there are physiological differences, because race is not biological,” Baumgartner said.

Data showing the coronavirus’ disparate impact on communities of color has come to the forefront after calls for racial data by lawmakers earlier this year. As activists have called for action against police brutality toward Black people, just as loud is the call for an end to systemic racism, including racism within America’s healthcare systems.

While America’s major cities have been hit particularly hard, New Hampshire’s communities of color are not immune. A recent report from the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute found that a lack of access to opportunities – such as adequate housing and medical care – has led to New Hampshire’s minority residents accounting for 26% of the state’s coronavirus cases and 21% of hospitalizations where race was reported. Minority residents make up only 10% of the state’s population.

Even in a state like New Hampshire, communities of color and minority populations experience more poverty and have less access to opportunities and services, which can lead to health disparities including higher rates of coronavirus infection, according to the report.

New Hampshire did not begin providing race and ethnicity-cased data for COVID-positive populations until late April. Some city health officials explained that sample sizes were too small in the first six weeks of the pandemic to identify disparities, making statistics potentially unreliable. Revealing some of the numbers early on might have violated HIPAA privacy rules by identifying minorities in small, mostly white towns, officials explained.

Jacqueline Wernimont, a Dartmouth professor who studies how Western countries record data on disease and death, said the fact that racial data is being recorded at all is a step in the right direction. France, for example, does not track how COVID-19 is impacting minority communities because of its “color-blind” social model. But tracking data and seeing where disparities exist can bring social problems to the forefront and expose areas that need the most help.

In the US, the CDC began collecting racial data in the 20th century as the 1918 Spanish influenza ravaged the country, Wernimont explained. Since race was added to death certificates, researchers have been able to see how people of color were dying at higher rates.

However, the numbers that Arizona had reported to the CDC were still incomplete. Wernimont and her team studied every death certificate from the 1918 Spanish flu period in Arizona and found that while only 519 deaths were reported by the Arizona Department of Health Services, over 2,000 had died from influenza and 50% of those who had died were Mexican or Mexican-American. An additional 3,000 were estimated to have died on the Navajo reservation but were not counted.

“It doesn’t surprise me that we are still in a system where certain lives are countable, certain lives are valuable,” Wernimont said.

The Spanish influenza hit communities of color particularly hard for similar reasons we see with COVID-19 today.

“In Arizona, in particular there were real difficulties getting [Native Americans] into pandemic capable treatment spaces. So even though there were tents and things like that set up in the major urban areas, these folks were not anywhere near an urban area and didn’t necessarily have a car to make it to Phoenix or Tucson,” Wernimont said.

Migrant workers who worked in the mining industry, many of whom were Hispanic or Latino, were also at higher risk.

“They’re sleeping in camps, literally right next to each other. And so when you have a respiratory illness where people are forced, by their economic situation, to be in spaces where a respiratory illness can spread quickly, then you see a kind of higher density of spread.”

Baumgartner says the fact that journalists are now highlighting the stories of people of color who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 is “sobering,” but “it’s also really tragic, because they’re really stories about death and dying and inadequate treatment and unequal access to healthcare.”

While the fact that the United States is tracking racial data at all is important, the next step toward addressing the causes of that disproportionate impact must be taken, and that takes time, Wernimont said.

“It can be incredibly dispiriting to see that 500 years later we’re still making some of the same mistakes, but I think that’s partly because people think of counting as a very neutral activity,” she said.

Dr. Kabria Baumgartner’s presentation on race, disease and death will be broadcast on Zoom this Friday, July 10 at 5 p.m. Click here to register through New Hampshire Humanities. Those not able to attend the live session can visit NH Humanities’ website or YouTube channel to view the recorded presentation for a limited time.


Ryan Lessard contributed to the reporting in this article.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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