How Racism Is Shaping the Coronavirus Pandemic

Historians in the News
tags: history of science, racism, medical history, COVID-19


Have you been thinking about the coronavirus in a historical context, and, if so, what specific context?

I think any historian who has worked on the history of disease has been thinking about the coronavirus in historical contexts, and there are many, many resonances that kept appearing in press reports of all kinds. About four weeks ago, I began to be particularly interested in the fact that I wasn’t hearing about the pandemic having an impact on African-American communities. You heard stories that said this disease affects us all, but, knowing what we know about the ways in which epidemic diseases always lay bare and make visible inequalities in a society, I was surprised that I wasn’t hearing very much about what was happening for African-Americans and Latinos, and also very poor people in general. Then the news burst on the scene that, in many of the hardest-hit areas, African-Americans were disproportionately impacted. And at that point I was having a conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and I decided to host a Webinar on the impact of epidemic disease on African-Americans from 1793 to the present.

Why did you decide to start in 1793?

Because there was a very serious outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia from 1792 to 1793. At the time, Philadelphia was the seat of government. Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a leading person in Philadelphia, but he was also a physician. He wrote a lot about his theories, about the spread of yellow fever and how it should be treated. I think the population of Philadelphia at the time was about fifty thousand, and over five thousand people died. That’s quite significant. And one of the things that came to the fore in that moment was the widespread belief among whites that African-Americans were immune to yellow fever. And so, because of that belief, Rush enlisted two African-American leaders of the community, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, and encouraged them to help treat the sick. He taught them how to perform some nursing and to help treat the sick based on his theories of how you treat yellow fever. And they did this, and they travelled around the city, and they did a lot of this work, as many white élites had left town. [Other members of Philadelphia’s free black community also worked as volunteers during the epidemic.]

And then at the end of the epidemic, a newspaper editor, Matthew Carey, wrote an article saying that, yes, they were immune, but that these black people who were supposedly helping sick people in Philadelphia were actually robbing them. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen then wrote a pamphlet, which is one of the earliest pamphlets written by African-Americans in the United States, and they argued that they had been misrepresented, that they had helped as many people as they could. And, by the way, they found that many of the black people in Philadelphia also did suffer from yellow fever, and some died. It’s an early instance of that notion that black bodies are different bodies, and therefore are not susceptible to diseases in the same way as whites, and the belief became quite visible and prominent in a medical discussion of an outbreak. So, to me, that was an important moment. It was also an important moment because African-Americans really spoke up for themselves and challenged those prevailing views.


Read entire article at The New Yorker

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