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Viral racism: Being Black is not a pre-existing condition

John Bell

April 14, 2020

In 1932 the US Public Health Service began a study of syphilis. They chose a group of 600 Black men, sharecroppers from Alabama, told them they were receiving free health care, and infected them without their knowledge.

The men were allowed to suffer long after a cure was available so researchers could study the untreated disease. The men were told they had “bad blood”.

The notorious Tuskeegee Experiment sounds like a disgraceful holdover from an ancient era. Disgraceful it was, but it continued to 1972. It would have gone on longer if not for a whistleblower.

This history comes to mind amidst the scramble to find and test a vaccine for Covid-19.

President Trump has been touting hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug with dangerous side effects, as a cure for coronavirus. His lead health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci has contradicted him and warned against it, but Trump has literally pushed him aside at press briefings to insist the drug is effective.

“What do you have to lose?” he gushed. “I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice. And it's their doctor's choice or the doctors in the hospital. But hydroxychloroquine. Try it, if you’d like.”

The world was not surprised to learn that Trump has a financial interest in an Italian pharmaceutical company called Sanofi, which happens to make hydroxychloroquine under the brand name Plaquenil. 

To prove the drug’s effectiveness the White House has ordered a major study with 3000 subjects. The hospital administering the study will be Henry Ford Hospital in inner-city Detroit. Those tested will be predominantly Black people.

This may not rival the Tuskeegee Experiments in harm to the subjects or deception, but the racist undertone are clear.


"Shithole countries"

“It may be provocative. Should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it's been done for certain AIDS studies, where among prostitutes, we try things, because we know that they are highly exposed and don't protect themselves?” Jean-Paul Mira, head of the intensive care unit at the Cochin Hospital in Paris, said in a televised discussion.

Provocative? Dr. Mira would have been at home in the Tuskeegee Experiment.

Soon after, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, head of the national biological institute in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that his country would accept experimental virus cures on Congolese. 

“The vaccine will be produced in the United States, or in Canada, or in China. We’re candidates for doing the testing here.”

It would be good to know which Canadian drug-makers plan to use Congolese as guinea pigs.

In Milwaukee 73% of Covid-19 fatalities were Black. Blacks make up only about 33% of the population. 

As the virus statistics come in, similar racial disparities appear across the US. The numbers are so glaring that even Trump had to try to address it at his circus-like briefing. He suggested that Blacks had preexisting health issues that made them more susceptible.

 “We're actively engaging on the problem of increased impacts -- this is a real problem and it's showing up very strongly in our data -- on the African-American community,” Trump said. “And we're doing everything in our power to address this challenge. It's a tremendous challenge. It's terrible.”

Double talk and no concrete proposals.

As critics have been quick to point out, Black workers are far more likely to be in low-paid but now-essential jobs; more likely to have lost their jobs due to the virus; to not have access to health care, and so more likely to self-diagnose; and to live in crowded conditions with sanitary issues. 

The pre-existing condition is racism. And the virus, along with government response, just exacerbates the social injustice.


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