COVID-19 and Racial Capitalism: A Deadly Mix

Dear Catalyst community,

COVID-19 has disrupted daily life in ways that are unprecedented in living memory. Many are talking about the “new normal” and wondering when we’ll get back to the old. But what does going back to normal mean in a world that is so profoundly unequal, so steeped in racism as ours? 

The course of the pandemic over the last several weeks reveals a stark reality: who survives this crisis is already being determined by structural racism, poverty, gender oppression, ableism, and ageism–as well as our collective resistance to these systems. How we organize and whose leadership we center will determine the answers to the crucial question — what comes next?

Photo by Brooke Anderson from “COVID Kills More Black People. Why?” Vehicle March + Sound Action in Oakland, CA

If we long for a post-pandemic world built on justice, we must understand how the crisis itself is shaped by long standing social disparities, and let that understanding inform how we act and how we organize now and in the long months and years ahead. 

“This is not only a crisis of coronavirus, it’s a crisis of racial capitalism… it’s the logic of racial capitalism that has set us up for this crisis, so to imagine something different we have to name the problem.” 

– Barbara Ransby on “Racial Justice Has No Borders” town hall

In the US, it is clear that racial capitalism shapes who is most likely to get sick, and who will recover.  Because of environmental racism, the racial wealth gap, medical racism and more, the brunt of this disaster is being felt by those already at the margins, particularly Indigenous and Black people and other communities of color. 

  • Recent reports show that Black people are disproportionately being infected and dying from COVID-19 in places like MilwaukeeChicago, and the Bronx. Majority-Black New Orleans now has the highest death rate in the country and could be the next US epicenter. In a recent Reuters poll, Latinos self-reported higher rates of exposure to infection than white people did.
  • Black and Latinx people are incarcerated at disproportionate rates, putting them at heightened risk of the devastating impacts of the pandemic. For the millions of people in the US locked up in prisons, jails, and detention centers, social distancing and basic hygiene precautions are impossible. Without mass releases, this will mean a death sentence for many prisoners.
  • In the words of Sayokla Kindness of the Indigenous Environmental Network, “For Indigenous people, this virus is 1492 all over again.” The Navajo Nation has reported a massive spike in cases, with higher than usual rates of hospitalization, particularly among young people. Indigenous communities across the so-called US are struggling to cope with the virus under conditions that include impaired access to clean water, crowded living spaces, and slow and inadequate emergency support from the federal government. Tribal elders are at particular risk, and nations are bracing for cultural and economic impacts that could last a generation. 
  • In the South, home to the majority of uninsured or underinsured Americans, the same governments that have spent decades exacerbating the racial care gap have been slow to adopt social distancing and implement shelter in place orders, putting Black southerners, especially those living in rural areas, at particularly high risk. These actions also put young southerners at greater risk.

In the Global South, conditions resulting from centuries of colonization and imperialism are exacerbating the crisis:

  • “While we rightly point to the lack of ICU beds, ventilators, and trained medical staff across many Western states, we must recognise that the situation in most of the rest of the world is immeasurably worse. Malawi, for example, has about 25 ICU beds for a population of 17 million people. There are less than 2.8 critical care beds/100,000 people on average across South Asia.” – Adam Hanieh, This is a Global Pandemic, Let’s Treat it as Such.
  • What does social distancing mean for the millions who live in refugee camps across the planet, forcibly displaced by war, state violence, and climate disaster? Or for people living under blockade in Gaza, cut off from adequate medical infrastructure long before this crisis began?
  • The Trump administration is doubling down on sanctions in the middle of this pandemic in an effort to bring about regime change in countries it is hostile to – Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba. In Iran alone it is estimated that 3.5 million people will die if the sanctions are not lifted.
  • In spite of the extreme hardship caused by the US blockade, Cuba continues to be a model of international solidarity in this pandemic, sending over 800 medical workers to 18 countries hardest hit by the virus, while the US government blocks US companies from shipping protective equipment to other countries.

These disparities are direct legacies of neoliberal policies at home and abroad – decades of  privatization, deregulation, and disinvestment in social services that shape who has access to care, secure housing, and environmentally safe living conditions.

Racial capitalism also shapes who is included in the recovery from the devastating economic emergency that is only just beginning.

  • “Unessential” workers who don’t have the privilege of telecommuting face cuts to their hours, furloughs, or layoffs; over 16 million Americans applied for unemployment as of this writing. Some of those workers will be able to return to work after shelter in place mandates are lifted, but many will not. Many of those accessing unemployment will still struggle to make ends meet, perhaps facing insurmountable debt, hunger, or homelessness as a result. Deepened generational poverty will be the outcome for many.
  • Many others won’t be able to apply at all–undocumented workers and workers in informal sectors, such as sex work and street vending, to name a few. 

“The crisis has exposed the capitalist system for what it is: anti-life. In this time of great danger, we need human solidarity — the politics of love, not the politics of hate. We must respond with our hearts and all of our humanity, not just to stop the most catastrophic effects of COVID-19, but to end this inhumane and criminal capitalist system once and for all.” 

– The Red Nation, The COVID-19 Pandemic, Capitalism in Crisis

And yet, as we are in a period of upheaval, visionary demands are being put forward every day by those most impacted. Listen to them, share them, and lift them up: 

Direct money and other resources to those most impacted: BIPOC, queer trans folks, disabled folks, incarcerated people, migrants. Here are some suggestions:

As we work to understand the crises unfolding around us, these are just a few of the ways that we can take aligned action for racial and economic justice. We hope you will join us, and most of all we hope that you are well. 

In solidarity,
David Imhoff on behalf of Catalyst Project