When we talked about the impact of COVID-19 on the African-American community, we highlighted the deep economic and social inequalities that persist in the United States today.
But, as is often the case in times of crisis, sometimes the seams are larger than we think.
At a time when the African-American community accounts for about 50 percent of deaths from COVID-19 in several states, and when access to public health and federal benefits remains a matter of privilege, the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer has been a radical turning point.
“The same broad-sweeping structural racism that enables police brutality against black Americans is also responsible for higher mortality among black Americans with COVIDE-19,” Maimuna Majumder, a Harvard epidemiologist working on the COVID-19 response, told Vox.
“One in every 1,000 black men and boys can expect to be killed by police in this country,” she says. “To me, this clearly illustrates why police brutality is a public health problem; anything that causes mortality at such a scale is a public health problem.”
Ever since Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department shot 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown Jr. to death, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has shown how police violence is interpreted in this country as a passing event, rather than what it is: a public health crisis.
Recent figures have shown that police forces kill about 1,000 people each year in the United States, and that approximately 100,000 are admitted to hospital emergency rooms for “non-fatal injuries, inflicted by law enforcement officers,” explained Joscha Legewie in his research study for Harvard University in 2019.
His research found that police killings and other forms of police violence “disproportionately affect” minority groups, and in particular, black Americans.
“The rate of police killings is almost three times higher among blacks compared to whites,” Legewie adds. “The consequences are stark for victims and their families, but the toll of police violence may extend to entire communities with spillover effects on those living nearby.”
In short, both phenomena — the virus and police brutality — are equally resistant and contagious.
Despite the risk of contagion from COVID-19 that still persists in the country, social discontent is not something that can be programmed into a schedule, nor postponed for when things “go better” because, for these communities, it won’t exactly be better afterwards.
“We can’t compare these two tragedies directly — but they both are public health crises that are operating at immense scales,” law professor Seema Mohapatra told Vox. “And in the case of black Americans, they’re interrelated, too. To me, these protests are about structural racism.”