There are many things about the current global framing of COVID-19 that can frustrate. But one of the most disingenuous and counter-productive by far (particularly when it comes to informing how societies should flatten the so-called ‘curve’), is the notion that ‘the virus does not discriminate.’
The hospitalisation of Britain’s Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (also known as Boris or ‘Bojo’ for short), suggested that ‘the virus’ is a terribly dangerous foe to which even the most privileged and powerful members of society can succumb. In other words, we are all in it together. And - precisely because of this capacity to breach otherwise deeply entrenched inequalities – his hospitalisation suggested the virus as a transgressive grand equalizer (there was no private hospital for the PM, but rather a bed in an inner-city hospital that caters for all and sundry).
In short, even as Bojo’s admission coincided with a steepening of the UK’s COVID curve, it seemed to suggest that somehow, when it comes to the pandemic, there is a flattening of the country’s otherwise irredeemably steepening inequality curve. Johnson’s soaring post-hospitalisation political approval ratings are, quite possibly, a guilty cover-up of the more visceral schadenfreude felt when, despite his insufferable Eton- and Oxford-inflected drawl, Boris was shown to be ‘one of us’ insofar as he contracted COVID-19 and went to the same hospital as ordinary citizens. Few things could have done more to bolster the notion that ‘the virus does not discriminate’, particularly in a society as ridden with class as the United Kingdom.
The ill-judged assumption that, simply because it has not spared a handful of privileged individuals, the virus disregards the privilege of those at the top of the socio-economic scale, has run parallel to the fund-raising drives of some NGOs that draw on the same notion that ‘a virus does not discriminate.’ The latter seek to draw attention to the fact that a wide range of marginalised and underprivileged people – such as slum dwellers, refugees, internally-displaced people across the globe - are not spared either when it comes to COVID-19. Refugees International, for example, write that “A virus does not respect borders. Nor does it discriminate. A truly effective response, not to mention a morally correct one, also must not discriminate.”
The simple act of suggesting that a virus does NOT respect and does NOT discriminate simultaneously serves to anthropomorphize that same virus. By pitting this now magically personified virus against a ‘morally correct’ response (by human beings), the language further plays into the tendency to see the virus as an enemy to be engaged with as one would engage with a human-like extra-terrestrial challenger (Darth Vader perhaps?).
This tendency to personify a virus that cannot be seen with the human eye, quite apart from being faintly ridiculous, also deflects our attention from the raw fact that, while isolated instances of COVID-19 fatalities can be found across the socio-economic spectrum, the epidemiology of its workings surfaces the multiple, ugly and longstanding realities of human-to-human discrimination. The statistics from the US and now from England are finally (though very belatedly) starting to show that we are NOT all equal when it comes to our resistance to COVID-19. National Health Service statistics from the UK (as of 17 April 2020), for example, show that while white British represent 85.3% of the total population, they represent only 73.6% of fatalities. British of Asian origin represent 7.7% of the population and 7.6% of fatalities. Black British, who make up only 3.5% of the population, represent 5.8% of all fatalities. ONS statistics have also begun to show how death rates track onto poverty rates, with those in poor areas of London more than twice as likely to die as those in wealthier parts of town.
While initially it was easy to say that the elderly are at much higher risk than the young, we now begin to get glimpses of a much more complex picture. We can now say that while there is an overall societal curve, this epidemiologically aggregated picture hides a multitude of sub-curves, some of which are far steeper than others, with the determinants of steepness closely tracking and mapping across onto long-established indices of socio-economic and political discrimination.
It is these realities that are largely masked by phrases such as ‘the virus does not discriminate,’ phrases that do a thorough job of work for politicians who, in their thirst to be seen as war heroes, are eager to turn a virus into a personified and quasi-human enemy against whom we should all unquestioningly mobilise - and against which no constituency (other than older persons) requires particular protections. Few things could have done more for Bojo’s nation-(re)building project post-Brexit, at least in the short term.
While the global media quickly latched onto the role of “underlying health conditions” as an explanation for why some people die while others of the same age do not, it has been grindingly slow to explain to its information-hungry audiences that these underlying health conditions are themselves symptoms of terminally morbid patterns of governance, of deeply entrenched forms of stigmatisation and exclusion (demonstrably racism and ageism), and of egregiously unequal patterns of access to a wide range of social goods such as health care, legal status, healthy foods, healthy environments and agreeable living spaces.
While there is some evidence to suggest that genetic make-up renders some people more vulnerable, this should not obscure the fact that obesity, diabetes, pollution-induced lung conditions, are largely acquired not inherited. Though these are all factors that increase the likelihood of dying of COVID-19, we must also acknowledge that they are socio-economic and political factors that are very largely under the control of human beings. We are not born with different levels of resilience, we are born into them: political systems, social policies and legal frameworks have been constructing the wide variation in present-day resilience over decades if not centuries.
While telling older persons that they need to be even more locked down than those who are still younger indicates strategy based on biological differentiation, what would it look like to have protection strategies that are fully cognisant of socio-economic and socio-political divisions and differentiations and their impact on levels of resilience?
To even have the headspace to be able to hear this question in the current global climate, we need stop saying ‘the virus does not discriminate’ as if everyone is equally susceptible to a wholly random process of becoming severely ill. We need to stop pretending that the only thing we can focus on is a blanket approach in which nothing more can be aspired to than that each looks out for her or himself in the face of a virus that is indifferent to which particular body it is colonising.
We need to shout, loud and clear, that the virus highlights discrimination – and that the only way to address the virus is to address the underlying discrimination. What will become increasingly clear over the coming weeks and months is that social distancing can only flatten the curve to a certain point – and then only in the short-term. Bringing the national “R” down to below 1 will almost certainly mean that in certain vulnerable communities it remains well above 1. Vaccination – once it eventually becomes available – will also only flatten the curve to a certain point. To bring the curve down to a horizontal line that no longer rears its ugly head we need – alongside social distancing - a social awakening that informs strategy in the short to medium term, and that does not fade if and when the immediate threat of COVID-19 is eventually dissipated.
Only once a COVID-19 induced awareness of and action on the petri dish of discrimination itself ‘goes viral’, can we create the space to think about protective and pre-emptive measures that are radically different to blanket lockdowns. Only through acknowledging the role that long-standing discriminations play in grossly unequal patterns of death by COVID-19, and only by flattening those curves within ‘The Curve,’ can we find workable long-term solutions to this - and future - epidemics.
By David Ngendo Tshimba
Uganda Martyrs University