Coronavirus outbreak revives dangerous race myths and pseudoscience

The news last week that NBA player Rudy Gobert, a Frenchman of Caribbean heritage, had tested positive for the coronavirus shattered a myth that some of the world’s more conspiracy-minded had circulated online through jokes, news stories and social media posts.

Black people are not, in fact, immune to the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the Afro-British actor Idris Elba, who lives part time in the United States and tested positive for COVID-19 this week, posted on social media about his early lack of symptoms and subsequent changes, how he managed to be tested, the dangers of the disease — and the myth of black immunity.

“Something that is scaring me, when I read the comments and some of the reactions, my people, black people, please, please understand that coronavirus is … you can get it,” Elba said. “There are so many stupid, ridiculous conspiracy theories about black people not being able to get it. …That is the quickest way to get more black people killed. And I’m talking about the whole world, wherever we are. … Just know you have to be just as vigilant as every other race.”

Variations on the immunity myth — claims that black worshipers can’t be infected at church where a pastor refused to cancel in-person services and false assertions that there are zero COVID-19 infections in Africa to name a few — remain on the internet along with other fantastical ideas. The myth of group immunity may, public health, disease control and bioethicists say, provide some people with a bit of levity or sense of control in a seemingly dire time. But the risk of false information circulating in any form far outweighs the value of a few chuckles or nerve-calming denial.

What’s more, fictional claims about black immunity from a potentially deadly viral infection are connected with a long history of contradictory but uniformly racist ideas serving the social or political needs of the moment, experts say.

“I want to be very clear — there is, despite many claims to the contrary, no truth, no fact at all in claims of genetic differences, immunity or susceptibility, to disease based on race,” said Otis Brawley, a professor of epidemiology and oncology at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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The list of health conditions linked to genetic variations found more often in specific geographic regions is a short one. Even health conditions that appear disproportionately in some populations, such as sickle cell disease, fall in this category, Brawley said. As a result there are people classified in the United States as both white and black who have sickle cell disease or the genetic trait. But, this pattern is, too often, wrongly conflated with race, he said.

Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz warms up before a game on March 6, 2020.Omar Rawlings / Getty Images file

Race medicine is almost always bad medicine,” said Brawley. “So I do not have and, to my knowledge, no one else has, any data demonstrating either racial or geographic immunity from coronaviruses.”

While the false notion of black immunity to coronavirus has, to some degree, faded in the days since the Gobert news — which was followed by several other black NBA players testing positive as well — other absurd notions, conspiracy theories and lies have rippled through many social media feeds.

“There are a whole range of crazy notions gaining traction,” said Gail Christopher, executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity. “We all would like to have hope right now to counter the anxiety that the bulk of the news is giving us. So anybody is possibly vulnerable to misinformation. We do, all have, naturally, a psychological propensity to cling to hope, but that is also part of what makes this so dangerous.”

Jokes may help some deal with the fear of a disease creating massive, disempowering social upheaval, Christopher said. Conspiracy theories may do the same. And the effort to rebrand the virus as the fault of the Chinese (or vice versa), is nothing more than a flagrant attempt to shift blame and deflect attention from a disjointed and inadequate official response, she said. What’s more, black Americans are overrepresented among those living with some of the underlying health conditions — asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease — that can put a person at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying due to the coronavirus, Christopher said. Global differences in health care access and quality compound this problem.

Representatives from the World Health Organization have met with many of the nation’s major technology companies, and the organization is working with Google to curb the spread of misinformation online.

“The COVID-19 outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic,'” the organization said in a statement to NBC News last week.

The WHO is also working with social media companies and influencers to detect misinformation and limit its spread, the agency added

“These myths have a track record not just of shaping attitudes but of shaping policy and practice in public and private spaces, in hospitals and in schools, in workplaces, too,” said Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, lawyer and sociologist who researches race in medicine. “It’s not farfetched to fear that now.”

Over the course of 100 years, the false belief spread that people of African descent had inferior or weak lungs — ideas championed by no less than Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Cartwright, a respected doctor and professor at the school that would become Tulane University, according to Roberts, author of “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century.” The lungs of black people were so in need of constant exertion, the men argued, that forced unpaid labor — slavery — was a form of treatment.

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In the 1790s, nearly two decades after he signed the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a respected white Philadelphia physician, and others advanced the idea that black people were somehow biologically immune to yellow fever. Rush did so during a massive outbreak in that city. Black people, Rush and others said, were uniquely positioned to care for the sick, dig graves, and cart away and bury bodies. In the end, 4,000 to 5,000 people died, including an estimated 240 black residents.

Given that history, this month, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a column refuting false claims that black Americans are immune to coronavirus. The city is more than 42 percent black. But the problem of racial myths in medicine remains a part of modern thinking well beyond Philadelphia, Roberts said.

In 2016, a survey of 222 medical students and residents found that half believed at least one of several myths about biological differences between black and white people that shaped their approach to treating pain. As a result, the medical professionals were overwhelmingly less willing to regard or treat the pain of black patients the same as white patients.

And the problems do not end there. To this day, most of the nation’s medical facilities use different standards for measuring lung and kidney function for black patients versus others, Roberts said. This, in turn, means that black patients must register more significant breathing difficulties or kidney dysfunction before the most serious medical interventions are offered.

“Any way you look at it, I see no benefit to any of the myths about black physical peculiarity,” Roberts said. “They have all been dangerous to black people’s health and welfare in America, supportive of white supremacy and promoted low levels of care and concern about black people’s health.

“So I think it’s a mistake to even joke about it. I just don’t find it funny at all.”

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