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In the Grip of a Triple Crisis
The first week of June 2020 was cataclysmic for the US. The unrelenting Covid pandemic continued to disproportionately impact people of color while the economic downturn exhibited Depression-era rates of unemployment and layoffs. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death by a kneeling police officer, the country erupted in protests against persistent racism and racial injustice towards African Americans.
The events formed a triple crisis that slammed a nation grappling for ways to simultaneously stave off a deadly virus, an economic crisis and systemic racism in its police force.
How will the nation extricate itself from the grip of an unprecedented debacle and learn to move forward?
A panel of civil rights advocates and health experts shared their perspectives on next steps at a briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services on June 5.
COVID19 is Spiking: The Facts
Covid-related infections and deaths continue to rise around the world said Dr. Tung Nguyen Professor of Medicine at University of California, San Francisco.
- To date 6.5 million people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and nearly 378 thousand deaths recorded worldwide.
- In the United States over 1. 8 million infections and more than 107,000 thousand deaths have been reported.
- Cases are rising in 17 states including California, Texas, Florida and North Carolina, and the CDC is forecasting nearly 118,000 to 143,000 deaths by June 27th.
- And, a significant finding on ER data indicates that ER visits are declining, but it could simply mean that people with severe medical conditions unrelated to COVID19 are avoiding the ER and getting worse due to conflicting priorities.
Dr. Nguyen remarked that the large crowds protesting police brutality could contribute to a possible rise in infections. He recommended that police stop using teargas to dispel protesters because it causes coughing and teary eyes that could increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.
He also urged people to wear face masks, as over 72 studies of more than 25,000 patients proved that masks were effective in preventing infection, and that high risk individuals like healthcare workers should wear N95 rather than surgical masks for protection.
The CDC Director told Congress that race, ethnicity, age and zip code data must be added to testing collection to make testing more effective in addressing disparities.
On the treatment front, the good news said Dr. Nguyen, is that 17 vaccines are in human trials, with Moderna due to enter phase 3 testing in July. However, he warned against the use of hydroxychloroquine after exposure to COVID19, as studies show it does not prevent infection.
The Disease of Racism and Police Brutality
Dr. Nguyen described racism as a disease that inflicts health disparities to people exposure to it. Racism is similar to social determinants like poverty, education, the environment and healthcare access,” he said, adding that “chronic exposure to racism causes the body to change adversely to the release of stress, hormones, and neurotransmitters.”
“We also know that acute exposure to racism can lead to death,” stated Dr. Nguyen, “as in the case of the recent killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.”
In Nguyen’s view the pandemic has “severely stretched our dysfunctional systems – health, economical, legal and political, to their limits and broken them. We can no longer pretend that they are good enough. They were never good enough except for those of us who enjoy privilege.”
He also suggested that the pandemic had ripped off the ‘so called’ color blindness from our eyes so people can no longer pretend we all benefit or suffer in the same way. Racial and ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, suffer more from disparities in income equality, education and environment degradation, he said.
In fact, stated Nguyen, “One of 2000 black Americans have died in the pandemic, and their mortality rate is two to three times more than white people.” As a disparity expert, Nguyen was not surprised because data shows that black people, even at high socio-economic levels, have shorter life expectancies than middle class whites.
However, he called for more and accurate data because for decades before the pandemic, data on racial and ethnic minorities has been insufficient. “Whenever the data is not there, it’s because someone powerful does not care.” So it’s no accident, added Nguyen, that there are few minorities in positions of power.
“In the absence of data America can pretend there aren’t so many health disparities.”
The health implications of racism & police brutality
Nguyen called racism and police brutality disease vectors that need to be controlled and eradicated. “Statistics confirm that one out of 1000 black men can be expected to be shot at by police in their lifetime.”
The protests, he predicted, are beginning to look like interventions against the disease of racism.
Nguyen’s view was endorsed by the other panelists who discussed the need to reform law enforcement and systemic exclusionary practices.
Color consciousness not color blindness combats stereotypes
As the BLM movement gathers steam, “Nothing’s changed but what year it is.” said Professor Jody Armour. He described a futile cycle of “wash, rinse, repeat” interventions initiated over the years to address systemic racism and brutality in the police force, but “which have solved nothing.”
Armour’s 1997 book ‘Negrophobia & Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America’, documents the repetitive sequence of commissions, public hearings, policy wonks, hashtags, implicit bias training, body cams, de-escalation, community policing and interventions that came to nought.
Fast forward to 2020. “That police department in Minnesota had all these interventions” noted Amor, and yet, “three officers stood by” as an officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck.
“Black lives haven’t mattered since the inception of this nation”, remarked Armour, adding, “Black lives did not matter under Jim Crow.” On Skid Row in Los Angeles, the largest homeless encampment in America, “75% of the faces are black”.
The Fix for Structural Racism
The fix is change at a fundamental level of policing said Armour. That means cutting back on the police department and its budget, and reallocating resources to schools, ‘houselessness’ and social services.
“Right now, these resources are being ‘sucked up’ by law enforcement,” explained Armour. In LA, nearly 54% of the mayor’s staggering $5.5 billion budget went to the LAPD. “That money should be going to schools,” he urged.
“The trope for our problem is Hurricane Katrina when there was no collective empathy for the black lives standing in water up to their necks in the 9th Ward,” said Armour.
“There is relative indifference to the suffering of those who don’t belong to your ingroup.” In addition, police officers are insulated from accountability and transparency by Union Collective Bargaining Agreements.
The way forward is to revamp, test and reform how we hire Police Officers,” advised Armour. The solution is not technological intervention or policy tweets. He suggested that diverting funds to address disparities will drive better outcomes in health, violence and unemployment. In most cases violence is triggered by law enforcement of ‘low level, non-violent offenses.
“African Americans are being criminalized in schools,” he stated, creating a pipeline from juvenile hall to the prison system.”
Police need to focus on murder, rapes, violent assault and robbery which are only ‘being solved at a 40-45% rate” in many cities because police work is being diverted from investigation toward proactive, “broken windows policing.”
“You can reduce police presence without reducing public safety,” noted Armour. “When ‘Stop and Frisk’ was reduced in New York, the crime rate went down.
Before moving forward from the triple crisis, Thomas Saenz, President, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), urged that an examination of the underlying culture in society and law enforcement was necessary.
“There are systemic discriminatory practices embedded in the culture that have clear exclusionary impact,” he said, though he finds it ironic that “today we are experiencing these crises under perhaps the most openly racist and exclusionary president.”
However, Saenz suggested that the culture in law enforcement has to change “through structural reform not only in how its financed but also in how we select and entrust with law enforcing our community.”
He also advised looking at a deeper level at our underlying culture that still accepts discriminatory, race-linked disparities that “ we perpetuate and facilitate,” if we cannot attribute them to intentionally and openly expressed racial discrimination.”
Steps taken to counter the pandemic at the federal level continue to “embed within them” discriminatory policies that excludes minorities, added Saenz.
Recent legislation excluded largely undocumented workers from receiving economic stimulus checks because they pay taxes with an Individual Taxpayer id number. As a result, comments Saenz, every member of their families (including US citizen spouses and children) are also excluded .
“We know that that exclusion has a racially discriminatory impact particularly on Latin and Asian American communities,” said Saenz. The Department of Education under Betsy DeVos provided advice with clear racially discriminatory intent that prevents some immigrant students from receiving relief from federal allocated emergency financial aid that other students got.
Exclusionary practices with clear racially discriminatory impact, dehumanize people of color and demonize protestors who have “risen in righteous indignation against George Floyd’s murder,” said Saenz.
As the economy recovers and jobs are restored, “We will see longstanding patterns of discrimination recur,” said Saenz. “White employees will be hired back first while African, Latino and Asian Americans will be hired later on.”
He cautioned that, “With these crises we are doing what we have too often done. We are continuing, perpetuating and lengthening our acceptance of ongoing discriminatory exclusions “because we cannot attribute them to blatant racism “even though we know they are driven by racist ideology.
This is a problem that will feed into the response and recovery of these crises, said Saenz.
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents