Stop Calling Coronavirus “The Great Equaliser”

Photo: Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images.
Over the last few months, the world has seemed to turn upside down as COVID-19, the novel virus upending communities globally, continues to spread rapidly. In the United States, the pandemic has halted life as we once knew it — particularly in major metropolitan areas like New York City, where cases have climbed to over 40,000, in a state with the country’s largest number of confirmed cases.
As Americans began to come to grips with coronavirus’ impact on their country, we did what Americans often do: encouraged ourselves with classic clichés like "we'll through this," or "we're in this together." One of the most egregious example was the habit of referring to the virus as “The Great Equaliser,” a term many coined — including singer Madonna, who mused about the pandemic from a bubble bath surrounded by candles. The name is meant to imply that the virus itself does not discriminate and will equally affect communities regardless of race or class.
But the name is a lie; an idealistic fallacy perfectly in line with the myth of the “American Dream.” It implies that the US actually enacts equal protection under the law, when it doesn’t. It suggests that our nation genuinely applies the truths our slave-holding founding fathers proclaimed to be self-evident to everyone, which it doesn’t. And although it makes a lot of people feel better about the current state of affairs, it ignores this country’s history of racism and dedication to maintaining a second class primarily composed of Black and brown people. COVID-19 may not see colour, but America certainly does. 
Last week, several states released data that showed the coronavirus is disproportionately infecting and killing black Americans at disturbingly high rates. In Chicago, 72 percent of those who have died from COVID-19 are black, despite making up less than a third of the population. In Louisiana, about 70 percent of deaths from COVID-19 are black, despite only accounting for a third of the state’s population. In Michigan, although African Americans only make up 14 percent of the population, they represent a third of positive tests and 40 percent of deaths in the state. The list goes on. 
On Tuesday, Donald Trump acknowledged the disparity and begged the question, “why is it that the African-American community is so much, numerous times more than everybody else?” While the president may have been shocked — and who knows if his reaction was feigned or genuine — the one group of people that wasn’t at all surprised by this news was black people. Because — well, racism. 
I never asked myself if my community would be hit hardest by the pandemic; it was more a matter of when. Whether it were because black Americans disproportionately make up the workforce that doesn’t have the luxury to work from home — or soak in the bathtub, or learn new dances on TikTok. Or if it were a result of the overwhelming lack of access to adequate healthcare and housing that has led to disproportionate diagnoses of pre-existing health conditions like hypertension, asthma and diabetes — all of which can ultimately prove fatal when mixed with the symptoms of the virus. Or even if it were a byproduct of the impending recession that is sure to hit all Americans, but will especially gut black and brown communities. The longstanding systematic and structural inequality that make up the fabric of the US have created a perfect storm. As the old saying goes, “when white folks catch a cold, black folks get pneumonia.” 
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but there’s no denying the facts. New York Times reporter Nicole Hannah Jones outlined the factors that have contributed to the disparity in a thread on Twitter. 
And even protective measures are privileged. 
The CDC now recommends Americans cover their faces in public to prevent the potential spread of the virus. However, many black and brown people are hesitant to use makeshift coverings out of fear of harassment or potential violence. A black man surely can’t wear a bandana on his face if he can’t even wear a hoodie without getting killed. 
As expectant mothers grapple with the reality of giving birth in the midst of a pandemic, many hospitals have adjusted their policies to protect staff and patients. And while the uncertainty of it all can be scary for any woman preparing to give birth, for black pregnant women it can mean life or death.
As more data becomes available, it will become even clearer how the most vulnerable communities will be impacted by the pandemic. And it’s important to remind ourselves that while coronavirus is certainly bringing the country to its knees, it’s no doubt putting the black community in crutches — and if we don’t address the factors of structural inequality, it will only handicap the community further. America will recover from COVID-19, but there’s another virus — one deeply rooted in this country's DNA — that requires immediate attention.   

More from Culture

R29 Original Series