A virus that exploits racism

A virus that exploits racism

Laurence Riley was a navy veteran who had survived the Vietnam War, who died of coronavirus in late March. He is among a number of veterans who have died. In particular, state-funded “Soldiers’ Homes” are notoriously starved for money and staff. In one soldier’s home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where more than 40 veteran residents have died from a COVID-19 outbreak


In the Vietnam war, despite representing at that time around 1 in 10 of the US population, African-Americans represented 1 in 4 of the combat troops. In 1965, they accounted for nearly 25% of all US combat deaths in Vietnam.

The struggle against coronavirus has been described as a war by many, not least populist leaders like Donald Trump trying to generate some kind of ‘wartime leader’ credibility. One thing that is true in the comparison; just like in the Vietnam war, it is once again black and minority ethnic people who are on the front line. Yet this time they are bus drivers, shelf stackers and health workers. Just like those who were drafted, none of these people asked or volunteered to be on the frontline of this fight. And as in so many wars before now, they are being asked to fight with minimal protection.

Across rich countries there is growing debate now about why it is that BAME people are suffering disproportionately from the impact of coronavirus. Some offer biological expectations for this – e.g. how this is just about high rates of diabetes among South Asian communities, for example – and stop there. But this kind of analysis falls far short. Others, including Wayne Farah for the Institute of Race Relations and Omar Khan who leads the Runnymede Trust have instead written about how in fact this disproportionate impact isn’t like some natural law – but a result of historic and structural racism and economic inequalities, that drive underlying health conditions or cause BAME communities to work in less secure jobs or face discrimination at every turn. 

As of April 8th, eight doctors had died in the UK, all were BAME and all of them were immigrants. 70% of front-line workers who have died are BAME. In the UK National Health Service 40% of doctors and 20% of nurses are from BAME backgrounds. This exposure puts them at greater risk of catching the coronavirus in the first place. There is also strong evidence that they are less likely to speak out against inadequate protection and safety measures, not surprising when you consider racism within the health system – BAME workers increasingly face bullying and abuse, and are twice as likely to face disciplinary action.


Black people are over-represented in manual and service sector jobs, and they are either now out of a job because of the virus or are having to face it daily with minimal protection as essential workers. Supermarket shelf stackers. Delivery drivers. Bus drivers. In the New York city, 40% of drivers are black, 16% are Hispanic and 10% are Asian. Nearly 70 bus drivers have died, and many more are sick. Many are turning up to work even though they are sick, for fear of losing their jobs.  In London 20 have died. As one bus driver in the US put it: “I did not sign up to put my life on the line without any protective wear. I signed up to drive a bus.” 

In late March, Jason Hargrove, a Detroit driver, posted an emotional Facebook video about a passenger coughing on his bus without covering her mouth. Eleven days later, Hargrove was dead from coronavirus.

Jason Hargrove

Supermarket workers are also dying and testing positive in large numbers.  Seventy five Amazon workers have caught the illness and one has died. Amazon has sparked outrage over its decision to fire Staten Island warehouse employee Chris Smalls after he organized a protest to demand stronger protections for workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile Jeff Bezos remains the world’s richest man and his fortune is larger than ever (see next section).

These essential workers, who are among the poorest, and are disproportionately black or minority ethnic, are living in fear, both for themselves and their families, without adequate protection. This virus exploits racism. It exploits poverty. It exploits inequality.  

Meanwhile stories of high profile rich and famous people getting sick with the virus have all but dried up. Which makes sense when you think about it. In those anarchic first few weeks, where very little was known and few precautions being taken, it was the international jet set who were the ones getting sick. In Kenya the virus is called the ‘visa virus’, brought to Kenya by those who are able to get travel visas and rich enough to fly around the world. Coronavirus was the ‘great leveller’ attacking rich and poor alike. It was actually attacking rich more than poor in the first instance.  

But now as the disease settles in the profile of those getting sick and dying is becoming one that increasingly follows the faultiness of inequality. It has made the leap from the suburbs to the slums, and as rich people are able to self-isolate, send their maids and nannies home, get on Zoom, their likelihood of contracting the virus declines dramatically.  The poorest people, in rich countries and poor ones, have none of these opportunities to make themselves and their families safe. These people are far more likely to be from black or minority ethnic backgrounds than those who are better off.  

This greater focus on the brutal inequality of the impacts of this virus is also because the virus is now hitting some extremely unequal countries, in a very public way, especially the United States and increasingly the developing world. In Spain the health system has been overwhelmed, but nevertheless whether you were rich or poor, black or white had no bearing on your access to treatment.  The opposite is true in the US or in most developing countries. Even before a cure is found, this is rapidly becoming a disease that kills poor people more than rich ones, and black people more than white.

 We know that in unequal countries the prevalence of the existing illnesses that make you much more vulnerable to coronavirus is much higher. Diseases like diabetes or obesity. Or untreated tuberculosis. Malnutrition too, a problem likely to be increased by lockdown induced hunger. All of this increases susceptibility to the illness, and when this is added to the inability to take simple precautions like work from home or even have clean water to wash your hands, it is clear that this is an inequality virus. (thanks to Nabil and Deepak in preparing this).

Pandemic profiteers

 An excellent report was published by Chuck Collins, Omar Ocampo and Sophie Paslaski at inequality.org this week looking at billionaire fortunes in the US in the light of the pandemic. In my previous blog I had pointed out that billionaires had seen their wealth dramatically fall in the first weeks of the crisis as the stock market fell. Two months in, whilst many billionaires have still seen big losses, many are now seeing major gains. Jeff Bezos, the worlds’ richest man, has seen his fortune increase an estimated $25 billion since January 1, 2020. This is larger than the Gross Domestic Product of Honduras, $23.9 billion in 2018.

 In the financial crisis, billionaire fortunes bounced back dramatically in the year following the crisis. They then went to rise dramatically over the next decade, with fortunes rising far faster than wages or the wealth of ordinary citizens.


Eight of these pandemic profiteers have seen their net worth surge by over $ 1 billion. They are: Jeff Bezos (Amazon), MacKenzie Bezos (Amazon), Eric Yuan (Zoom), Steve Ballmer (Microsoft), John Albert Sobrato (Silicon Valley real estate), Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX), Joshua Harris (Apollo Global Management), and Rocco Commisso (Mediacom).  It seems in the coronavirus crisis, some billionaires, that the report calls the ‘Pandemic Profiteers’, are seeing their fortunes rise far earlier in the crisis, and they are already making an absolute fortune.  

 The report calls for extraordinary taxation on the incomes and wealth of these profiteers to help pay for the coronavirus response. I both hope and expect that calls for such taxes multiply in the coming months.

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