In the past two days alone, two African-American NBA basketball players have tested positive for coronavirus, and several cases have turned up among native populations in both African and Caribbean countries, puncturing any theory that black people are immune to the disease. Yet the memes persist.
So NONE of these Corona Virus cases have been black people?! LEMME FOUND OUT WE IMMUNE. It’s the least God can do after slavery.— key. (@keywilliamss) March 9, 2020
Statements like this one are surely made in jest. But there are at least some instances of actualscientific or medical arguments, which outlets including Reuters and Politifact have already debunked. While some may argue that the jokes, at least, are harmless, U.S. history evinces how unsubstantiated claims about race-based resilience to disease have led to devastating outcomes, particularly for African Americans. The impacts of such beliefs still affect how people of color are medically treated — or not — today.
The 18th-century yellow fever outbreak in the Americas is instructive here. In the 1740s, yellow fever had overtaken coastal port cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, driving people into delirium, endless vomiting, hemorrhaging, and eventually death. The physician John Lining recorded his observations about the diseasein Charleston after inspecting slave ships and their cargo —including captive Africans — finding that it was almost exclusively white people who were succumbing to the disease. These observations helped reinforce already-stirring beliefs thatAfricans had some kind of supernatural inoculation to some of the deadliest diseases floating along the American coast.
Lining’s medical briefs became the reference manuals for another physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, when in 1793 a yellow fever outbreak took hold of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which at the time was the nation’s capitol. Close to 20,000 people — half of the population — fled Philly that year, while many African Americans actually stayed in the city at the request of Rush, who wanted to train them to nurse, care-take, and dig graves for the thousands of people dying of yellow fever.
“There were very real moments in history where African Americans were believed to be immune, and it wasn’t seen as a bonus.”
Rush was operating on the belief that black people were immune to the disease, and black Philadelphians believed him when he told them that they were. Rush not only was an outspoken abolitionist, but also friend of the black clergymen Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, founders of the African Methodist Episcopal church, and two of the most influential African Americans of the time.
Jones and Allen helped convince black people to stay behind to assist Rush, telling their congregations that it was their Christian duty to help care for the lives of white Philadelphians. But Rush was wrong. Many of the African Americans in his medical camp contracted the disease. Hundreds of them died. Allen became afflicted and almost died himself. While Rush was a highly respected doctor — the American Psychiatric Association would later title him the “father of American psychiatry” — he was relying onfaulty claims about race and health conditions that proved fatally wrong. The Philadelphia massacre became an abject lesson in what happens when race gets bandied about amidst the rages of a major health maelstrom.
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