COVID-19: The Blueprint for Black Survival
Smallpox used to be a Black people disease. It was God’s punishment for undeserved freedom. It was Natural selection weeding out the genetically inferior. It was the disease of the filthy Black man that refused to keep himself clean. Smallpox was just for Black people. At least that’s what white people said.
Low estimates suggest that at least 60,000 freed men and women died of smallpox following the Civil War. Hospitals were overwhelmed, though, and Black lives were considered expendable. Physicians were unable to keep adequate records. Current research suggests the death toll was much higher.
Much like today, though, there was a large disparity between the rates of death for white people and Black people. Military records reflected these inequities. According to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, “From May 1861 to June 1866, there were 12,236 reported cases of smallpox among white troops in the Union Army, or 5.5 per thousand men annually. In addition, there were 6,716 cases among the U.S. Colored Troops, or 36.6 per thousand men annually.”
Black soldiers were more than 7 times more likely to contract smallpox than their white counterparts. Worse, this wasn’t by accident. It was by design.
Smallpox has been around for thousands of years. It swept (or was spread) through the early colonies devastating Indigenous populations in the 17th Century. In the early 18th Century, outbreaks infected thousands in the states. Boston was hit particularly hard. But by the time of the Civil War outbreaks, the medical community, the government, and the public knew how to contain the virus. Vaccines had been available for more than two generations. And measures were taken to quarantine Americans in their homes and on the battlefields in efforts to save lives. Just not Black lives.
“Ironically, smallpox was a virus that local governments and doctors had been battling since the 18th century, yet when it broke out among emancipated slaves, federal officials failed to follow the protocols and procedures — vaccination, and quarantine where necessary — that doctors and communities had implemented for decades. They seemed to regard the outbreak among freed people as a “natural outcome” of emancipation, which only reinforced theories that newly freed black people were on the verge of extinction. From that point of view, officials had little incentive to try to stop its spread. Instead, they propagated a medical fiction that smallpox was a disease limited to former slaves — despite advances in 19th-century medicine that underscored environmental factors as the cause of the virus’ transmission.
According to the Medical Society of Washington, building barracks to house former slaves would have prevented the outbreak of smallpox in the first place. In their report on health conditions during the war, published in 1864, local physicians condemned military officials for not building barracks for freed people on the outskirts of town or in the city’s vacant lots, forcing them instead to congregate in overcrowded camps in the center of town, which was filled with trash, excrement and rotten food. ‘It is generally admitted,’ the physicians posited, ‘that small-pox is one of the diseases due to domiciliary circumstances, and is at all times a preventable disease. It has been stated over and over again by eminent authorities, that there need not be a single case of small-pox in any city; if the authorities will but take the proper steps to check it.’
Not much has changed.
The nation is facing a pandemic. Authorities know how to stop the spread. They are enacting protocols to protect the White community. They are allowing the disease to harvest Black bodies. Confederate flags fly.
More than five generations later, White communities in the United States have perfected their ability to weaponize disease. And as we face the COVID-19 pandemic, the White Nationalists in the White House are preparing to risk the lives and livelihoods of millions of Black Americans so that they can re-open the economy and rebuilt it on the backs and bodies of the descendants of slaves.
Black communities cannot afford to re-live the fates of their elders and ancestors. Things must be done differently if the preventable murder of tens of thousands of Black people in just the coming year alone is to be stopped. And they must be done quickly. Because not much has changed since the Civil War. And everything needs to.
As The Lancet reports:
“The ending of slavery led to the abrupt dismantling of antebellum systems of medical care….former slaveholders argued that it was no longer their responsibility to provide medical assistance to formerly enslaved people and claimed that it was the responsibility of the federal government to provide aid since they were responsible for emancipation. Meanwhile, federal officials believed that it was the responsibility of city and state governments to step in and provide aid for the poor and dispossessed since they had provided such assistance for poor white people since the early 19th century. Local and state governments, however, claimed that they were beleaguered and maintained that the number of white Southerners in need of clothing, food, and medicine had drained their meagre budgets.”
The same debate continues today.
White business and property-owning classes argue over whose responsibility it is to provide medical care and protection to Black communities on the vapid stage of the political theater while Black bodies pile up in overcrowded and underserved neighborhoods. We cannot wait another 5 generations to establish the infrastructure necessary to protect Black communities from this wave of the Coronavirus, the next wave of the Coronavirus and every wave of any epidemic that makes its way into Black communities. It needs to happen now.
In the era of COVID-19, the Black community needs a national level organizational infrastructure that can serve as a shadow Task Force dedicated to meeting the needs of Black communities at the state and local levels. Modeled after the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, the Black community must quickly organize a center of command that can respond to the administrative, medical, technical, social, economic and political needs of the Black community.
It should also be acknowledged that the Black community has specific needs that aren’t reflected in the organizational structure of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. Additional organizations, experts, and representatives will have to be brought in to fill these gaps.
Fortunately, while not much has changed, some very important things have. Over the past one hundred and fifty years or so, Black communities have been able to accumulate wealth, expertise, and organizational influence. Powerful organizations and networks have been built in the fields of medicine, economics, technology, social services and politics.
The organizations and networks must stand up now and serve not only as just a voice of the Black community as a whole, but as a foundation for action moving forward.
Just as white America has the Trump Administration serving as the central point of authority, Black America needs a central point of responsibility and collaboration. The White House Corona Virus Task Force has Mike Pence (Vice President of the United States), Stephen Biegun (United States Deputy Secretary of State), Robert Blair (Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to the Chief of Staff), Ken Cuccinelli (Acting United States Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security), Robert O’Brien (National Security Advisor), and Matthew Pottinger (Deputy National Security Advisor) functioning as control and command.
Ideally, the Congressional Black Caucus would mobilize to serve this function. In lieu of their participation, or in conjunction with it, the largest and most widely respected nationwide Black organizations need to step up and fill this role. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Action Network (NAN), and the Rainbow Push Coalition are amongst the organizations that are capable of carrying this burden.
Just as white America has experts in data and medicine taking the lead on data collection and public policy guidance, Black America needs experts that will be able to track COVID-19’s presence in Black communities and guide the policies needed to protect the public and front line health care workers. The White House Coronavirus Task Force has Debora L. Birx (United States Global AIDS Coordinator), Jerome Adams (Surgeon General of the United States), Alex Azar (United States Secretary of Health and Human Services), Kelvin Droegemeier (Director of the United States Office of Science and Technology Policy), Anthony Fauci (Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases),and Robert R. Redfield (Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Black America has the National Medical Association, the Association of Black Women Physicians, and the National Black Nurses Association. Representatives from these organizations can serve to guide the steps taken for the Black-serving medical community. They can also designate when it is safe to begin staging in increased levels of socialization. Historically Black Colleges and Universities should step up to perform data analysis and reporting.
Steve Mnuchin (United States Secretary of the Treasury), Larry Kudlow (Director of the National Economic Council), and Derek Kan (Executive Associate Director, Office of Management and Budget) are directing the budgetary and economic considerations of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Members of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Black MBA Association, and the National Association of Black Accountants should be tapped to fulfill similar functions for the Black community. Black banks can also be brought into the fold.
The White House has placed social services in the hands of Ben Carson (United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), Stephen Hahn (United States Commissioner of Food and Drugs), Joel Szabat (Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy in the United States Department of Transportation), Seema Verma (Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), and Robert Wilkie (United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs). The Black Coronavirus Task Force can call upon the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the Conference of Minority Transportations Officials, the African American Planning Commission (AAPC), and the National Association for Black Veterans to coordinate similar functions.
And finally, the White House Coronavirus Task force has Joe Grogan (Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council) and Chris Liddell (Assistant to the President and White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination) coordinating policy. A number of the organizations listed above can lend representatives to the coordination of national, state, and local policy.
Directly mimicking a task force that was built to serve white communities will fail to meet the needs of Black people. There are challenges that Black people face that white communities do not that must be addressed if communities are to survive COVID-19.
Jails and prisons are hotspots for the Coronavirus, and members of Black communities nationwide are overrepresented in these crowded and unsanitary spaces. Black communities are often nestled in food deserts and healthcare deserts that are polluted and dilapidated. They lack clean water. They lack proper sewage and sanitation. They lack proper educational institutions. There is no internet. There are few sources of information that can be trusted. There are no utilities. Black communities lack even the most basic infrastructure needed to implement a Coronavirus survival plan.
Organizations such as the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI), the National Association of the Black Male Educators, the National Alliance of Black School Educators, Blacks in Technology
Information Technology Senior Management Forum, the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), the National Association of Blacks In Criminal Justice (NABCJ), and the National Association of Black Journalists will have to step up, lead, and coordinate with the rest of the Black Coronavirus Task Force to clearly articulate plans for the de-ghettoization of the Black community. These groups will also have to coordinate deeply and directly with local and state level organizations.
Defensively, the Black community must recognize that white it has leverage, it also has enemies. There will be people organized to stop Black folks from protecting themselves. A network of strategist, political analysts, and grass roots advocacy groups will need to be formed to organize the direct action and civil disobedience efforts that will be necessary to achieve the demands of the Black Coronavirus Task Force. Black Lives Matter, the National Black Justice Coalition, the National Urban League, and Incite! are just a few of the organizations that can step up to take action.
But action must be taken. Town halls aren’t enough. Social media messaging isn’t enough. And waiting for the whitest White House in generations to do the right thing for the Black community is a strategic mistake that will cost tens of thousands of lives. We must learn from out past if we want to survive this pandemic. We must learn from the past if we are going to create a new future.