I’m a little unsure where to start today. I wanted to focus on Covid-19 science, but overnight it seems like US democracy hit the third rail. The police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week has triggered widespread social upheaval, far larger than earlier Covid-19 protests by gun-toting right-wing groups in Michigan’s capitol and elsewhere.
As just one example of many, here’s a Yahoo News reporter capturing the protest outside the White House last night.
Floyd’s unnecessary death was an egregious example of systematic racism in the US and caps a month of extraordinary events. The resulting civil unrest might be better understood in the context of the US response to Covid-19. It comes after Covid-19 has exposed the cost of America’s institutional racism.
Before Floyd’s murder, reports showed the disproportionate toll Covid-19 has taken on Black Americans. Due to income and wealth inequity, Black Americans have systematically less access to the US healthcare system.
The latest overall COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.4 times as high as the rate for Whites and 2.2 times as high as the rate for Asians and Latinos.APM Research Lab, ‘The Color of Coronavirus: Covid-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.,” 27 May 2020
Then there is America’s justice system. The release of non-violent offenders and older inmates from US prisons has been almost non-existent. While the US is not particularly different from the rest of the world in releasing prisoners during the Covid-19 pandemic, US prison inmates are disproportionately Black.
In the United States, more than 20,000 inmates and 6,400 correctional staff have tested positive for the virus, with over 300 deaths. Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institute has one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world – more than 80 percent of the prison’s 2,500 inmates have tested positive.Human Rights Watch, “Covid-19 Prisoner Releases Too Few, Too Slow,” 27 May 2020
It’s easy for the administration to claim the US treated prisoners like the rest of the world in order to sweep justice system racism under the rug. It’s easy to run a science experiment on prisoners to see how Covid-19 herd immunity develops. The right thing would have been to release more prisoners and reduce Covid-19 deaths.
Instead, while Trump’s pals Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort are both serving out their terms at home, Scottie Edwards, a 73 year old African American weeks shy of completing his prison sentence, died of Covid-19 in jail.
It’s early to assess the impact of Covid-19 on Black income and wealth, but early signs aren’t good. That adds to the institutional stress on Black communities.
It’s bad enough that Covid-19 has exacerbated systematic racism in US healthcare and justice systems. Just before Floyd’s death last week, Amy Cooper made a racially charged 9-1-1 call in Central Park. It went viral.
This is the context in which to judge the leadership from the White House after Floyd’s murder and the resulting social unrest.
Here’s what Trump tweeted as the social unrest escalated.
All I need to tell you about what Trump tweeted is that he lifted a racially provocative phrase from the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace that advocates using violence against protesters.
Compare that to Trump’s tweet earlier in May about white people with guns protesting Michigan’s Covid-19 lockdown.
This, in a nutshell, is US leadership today. The institutional racism the administration fosters helps explain why the US has three times higher per capita Covid-19 mortality than Germany. How hard would it have been for Trump to provide better healthcare to everyone and to release prisoners who weren’t his pals?
It gets worse.
Trump also is pulling out of WHO in the middle of a pandemic. My guess is that Trump is setting the stage to leave the U.N. He believes that the US has an advantage in bilateral deals rather than in multilateral deals. I’m sure Trump’s decision to exit WHO is what prompted the German Chancellor to postpone unilaterally the next G7 meeting. She’s waiting to see whether Trump leaves the White House or the G7 becomes the G6 because the US will negotiate only bilaterally. In any event, the withdrawal from WHO is shortsighted when the US has no idea what country has a viable Covid-19 treatment or vaccine.
I’m going to end today with what I’d planned to start with. The writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer died last week. His activism was key to advocating for HIV research. He was a controversial and passionate figure in the gay movement.
My friend Deborah suggested watching The Normal Heart, the film Kramer adapted from his play of the same title. This is one of the best AIDS dramas and I commend it to anyone living through a plague. To my young gay friends, I especially hope you take the time to learn about a vital force in American gay life.