Pandemics, racism and the historical loop of inequality

In the loving memory of my self appointed editor, best friend, and cheerleader. Our very first conversation centred around inequalities, prejudice, and discrimination pertaining to gender and race. You continued to challenge the orthodoxy and status quo at every opportunity. Despite the darkness surrounding the limitations of the human condition…you continued to have hope in humanity. The world has lost a good human…and I have lost an entire world.

“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community”.
– Susan Sontag

Crises, whether they are economic, political, humanitarian, or as the current pandemic, health related – they test us. They test us as individuals, and they test us as nations. They test every fibre of our existence in our resolve to continue with a sense of normalcy in a construct where nothing remains “normal”.

The pandemic has challenged us in our professional and personal lives on a continuous basis. However, beyond the trials that we face as individuals, we face constant battles as a society. The legacies left behind, once this pandemic subsides, will be preserved by history. They shall remain a point of reference and learning for the future generations who will inevitably, at some stage, face pandemics of their own.

The suffering associated with Covid-19 is not restricted merely to economic and political fronts, rather, it has complicated the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with inequality and discrimination, specifically to this blog, race, and ethnicity.

There has been a global rise in the open racism and xenophobia targeted towards the Chinese diaspora who have been vilified and blamed for the spread of Covid-19. These incidents are not restricted to isolated individuals, however, recognised official institutions across the globe have been setting reckless and dangerous precedents through political speeches, religious rallies, and even within educational institutions.

Unfortunately, the model of blaming a specific group of people as disease vectors is not new. History is riddled with similar examples of this “othering” process. During the 14th Century Black Death, the Jewish populations were assaulted and ostracised; the Irish Catholics were blamed for the cholera outbreak in 1858 with hospitals for immigrants being burned down; the Chinese population in San Francisco was persecuted for the outbreak of smallpox in 1878. More recent examples include a prominent Congressman writing to the CDC in 2014 advising them that children from Central America imported diseases to the US; the vilifying of black people for the 2013 Ebola outbreak as well as the continued stigma associated with HIV/AIDs.

The danger with stereotypes is how they have historically informed discriminatory practices. For example; different screening procedures depending on one’s race or ethnicity, passing bills to prevent the entry of specific nationals across borders; and, denying access to education and healthcare.

Back to present day and the current outbreak – whilst our immediate professional priorities have been maintaining the safety of our patients despite daily trials of minimal PPE, lack of testing and limited resources – there remains an urgent need to constantly challenge the inequalities that this pandemic fuels on an ethical front – and the matter of race becomes crucial in this. The message we send has to be one of equality, inclusion, and rooted in collective humanity.