I fully understand how viruses work. They exploit vulnerabilities, invading and quietly using their hosts’ cells to replicate, and then spread to other vulnerable hosts. As a black woman, I am doubly vulnerable—to COVID-19, and to the systemic racism that has always plagued my community. And at the moment, the coronavirus is attacking a major feature of America’s system—our profound racial divides. The nation’s public-health, medical, and scientific communities cannot address this pathway to infection without building trust among black Americans and giving black scientists a greater role in the fight.
I work in an infectious-disease lab that helps fight viral pandemics. Since 2013, I have overseen the genomic sequencing of viruses from patient samples collected during outbreaks of Lassa fever, Ebola, Zika, and hepatitis A. We started studying the novel coronavirus in January, after learning about the outbreak in Wuhan, China. Lately, my work has focused on, among other things, tracking the origin and spread of the outbreak in the Boston area, where our lab is based. (Through genomic sequencing, we believe that the virus was introduced to the region at least 30 separate times.) The overall goal of our work is to understand both the genomes of the pathogens and the ways they spread, including the social and cultural factors that contribute.
As I contemplate the spread of COVID-19 within my own community, those social factors look all too stark. Numerous studies have cited underlying health conditions and socioeconomic status as the main reasons black populations are shouldering greater burdens of infection and death during the pandemic. That may be a reasonable, albeit incomplete, scientific conclusion. But when I hear it, I also hear a sentiment hiding in it—something that isn’t being said out loud: Black people are to blame. You don’t merit the same compassion and dignity as white victims.
Our vulnerability does not earn us any special attention or public-health resources. For centuries, it has done the opposite, offering indifferent authorities an excuse to help us grudgingly or not at all. As the historian Vanessa Northington Gamble has documented, many leaders and health-care professionals during the 1918 influenza pandemic granted care and medical services—albeit limited and of low quality—to their black counterparts solely out of fear that disease-stricken black communities posed a public-health threat to white neighborhoods.
A century later, our needs are still routinely pushed aside. As the pandemic spread this spring, early triage plans for the expected surge in patients requiring intensive care included proposals to withhold lifesaving treatments from people with underlying health conditions such as lung and heart diseases—conditions that black people are more likely to have. Meanwhile, even experts who specialize in health disparities felt obliged to note that protecting the health of black patients also protects “all Americans.” We have been diminished as liabilities to the health-care system or as outright vectors for disease.