How Racism and Inequality Created COVID-19’s ‘Viral Underclass’ – Center for Public Integrity
We currently share the planet with over 380 trillion viruses. Some of these potent pathogens can kill us and even cripple the world, as the novel coronavirus did in 2020.
Viruses teach us how “undeniably connected we are and how important it is to take care of each other,” according to journalist and academic Steven Thrasher.
That lesson seemed to have been lost, he said, when President Joe Biden recently declared the pandemic “over” during his appearance on 60 Minutes.
“It’s indefensible,” Thrasher said. “It’s extremely insensitive, given that thousands of people die every week.”
In his new book,The viral subclass: the human toll when inequality and disease collide,” Thrasher writes that COVID-19 has made “millions, if not billions, of humans consider for the first time how living with a common virus can make a person feel like an outcast.” Thrasher’s masterful storytelling and meticulous reporting provide an important framework to help us understand why viruses can have disparate outcomes in communities of color.
Thrasher, who earned his Ph.D. from New York University and has spent decades writing about the HIV and AIDS epidemic, writing about 12 social vectors, including racism, ableism, law and austerity, that help create under -viral class.
*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
While covering the pandemic in Chicago, I wrote about the same dynamic described in your book and it is an important framework. What is the viral subclass?
I first heard it from activist Sean Strub, who used it to talk about how people living with HIV live under a different set of laws. I started to think [how to] use it as a framework, when the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and use it as an analysis [tool] to understand why certain types of people continue to find themselves on the path of viruses and why they have disparate impacts on their health, especially disparate impacts with their death. I started thinking about it this way, because I could see at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the same types of people who were affected by HIV and AIDS were initially affected by COVID-19, even at a geographic level that super lethal wave.
Before the moment of infection, incarceration and poverty, racism, homophobia, ableism, all affect people’s bodies in ways that have disparate impacts with viruses if they encounter them.
In your book, you describe prophylaxis as “the practices and physical objects that can prevent the transmission of communicable diseases”. How has it been during this pandemic?
Prophylaxis can be something very physical. A condom can stop the transmission of HIV, Ebola, Zika and a number of other pathogens. It can also be something like a mask or a face shield.
Not everyone is at equal risk. They face very different levels of risk, depending on the type of work they have, the conditions of their work, the decisions of their employers and the decisions of the state.
There are educational levels of prophylaxis, there are economic levels of prophylaxis — people who have access to a house are much safer than people who are not housed on the streets or in shelters with a lot of other people. The economy also plays a big role.
What is the white immunity myth? Do you think this myth was reinforced during the pandemic after we saw COVID-19 disproportionately killing black and brown Americans?
There’s an immunity that comes with whiteness – to some degree, on average, white people do better in health, they do better economically. But like all forms of immunity, it is not complete, it is not eternal, it does not apply to all white people. They have less risk, but sometimes they think they have no risk, which is not true. Social science has shown that when more whites understand that COVID deaths are mostly happening to non-whites, the less they care. But it is also at their own risk, as hundreds of thousands of white people have also died from COVID-19. White immunity will cause white people to act in a way that is not in their own interest.
Let’s talk about the case of Michael Johnson. A black gay man sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for not disclosing his HIV status to his sexual partners. Johnson was released in part because of your reporting. What can we learn from how the government has criminalized people living with HIV?
The case was extremely chilling. I attended the whole trial. What I learned from this is that society has an easier time blaming an individual scapegoat than dealing with the very messy, difficult, complicated, economically difficult things that have to be dealt with with pandemics.
Michael got one of the worst prison sentences ever given to an HIV-positive person, as if this pandemic was his fault. At a time when between 35 and 40 million people were living with this virus, it’s completely out of scale. It’s not realistic or humane to think of locking up 35-40 million people living with HIV, because they all got HIV from someone and you can’t lock them all up. It wouldn’t solve anything and it wouldn’t be human or ethical. But what really scared me about the COVID-19 pandemic was seeing a similar dynamic play out. There were a lot of very violent arrests in the first few months for not social distancing, or not wearing a mask, or going out after curfew. Almost everyone the NYPD has arrested, cited, beaten or thrown to the ground was all black because there is this misperception that viruses are black or racialized.
The chapter titled “parasite” was an indictment of capitalism. Why did you include this chapter?
Capitalism is one of the main reasons why we have pandemics around the world. We see examples of this time and time again. There’s a phrase I’ve heard from AIDS activists who’ve used it since the mid-1990s: “Science won the battle, but capitalism won the war.”
What they mean by that is that in the early 1980s there was terror and sadness about all the AIDS-related deaths. It took 15 years, but eventually the drugs became available. It’s a real kind of miracle of science. Science has won this battle. But then capitalism won the war because tens of millions of people don’t get the pills, a million people still die of AIDS every year. It is because of capitalism. It is because of intellectual copyright and trademarks that companies did not want to share with other countries. They wanted to make a profit. This is outrageous because the development of drugs for the treatment of HIV, such as for COVID-19, has been at some level publicly funded. Massive state resources are devoted to the development of these drugs and treatments. But private companies find a way to capture that and prevent it from being shared.
Same thing happened with COVID-19 vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna.
Capitalism itself economically structures society and relationships in such a way that there is an underclass or a viral underclass. It produces unequal health outcomes and it rations treatments or withholds them for profit. The system itself breeds disease.
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