May 10, 2020 Abdul Haqq

The Black Death: Society’s Scourge

Similar to today’s coronavirus pandemic, the Black Death apparently originated in Central or East Asia where it spread to the Crimea before arriving at the shores of Europe in October 1347 when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina:[1]

People gathered on the docks were met with a horrifying surprise: Most sailors aboard were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill… Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of ‘death ships’ out of the harbour, but it was too late…[2]

Another report recounts the devastation wrought by this particular pandemic at the time:

The Black death, also known as the Pestilence and the Plague, was the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, resulting in the deaths of up to 75-200 million people…[3]

Obvious parallels can be drawn between this ancient plague and the current pandemic so far as the apparent origins of Covid-19 emanating from China, alongside the transportation of the disease via infected human travellers. That disease was also “indiscriminately contagious.[4] Unfortunately, many societies have failed to learn lessons from the previous era and we are witnessing a repeat of the type of discriminatory practices meted out on minority groups during that period. For example, while the incumbent [p]resident, Donald Trump, preoccupies himself with apportioning blame for the outbreak of Covid-19 on China,[5] far right groups have increased their often abusive and anti-immigrant propaganda:

Far-right extremists have been linked to bombing plots tied to the coronavirus pandemic, spotted holding anti-Semitic signs at protests outside state capitols, and seen trafficking on fringe platforms in all manner of conspiracy theories about the virus…

 Blamed for spreading the virus, Asian Americans have reported being kicked, punched and spat on in New York, California, Texas and other states. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council says it has received more than 1,600 reports of verbal harassment, shunning and physical assault in recent weeks.”[6]

This dark period in medieval history also records a rise in anti-Semitism and the massacre of thousands of Jews:

“…many people believed that the Black Death was a kind of divine punishment – retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness. By this logic, the only way to overcome the plague was to win God’s forgiveness. Some people believed that the way to do this was to purge their communities of heretics and other troublemakers – so, for example, many thousands of Jews were massacred in 1348 and 1349.[7]

It is therefore somewhat disconcerting to observe the Israeli president, Benjamin Netanyahu and his government seeking to scapegoat Palestinians as the ones responsible for the spread of the virus in Israel:

In Israel, the Netanyahu government is laying the groundwork to blame Palestinians for the spread of Covid-19 by associating the virus with predominantly Muslim Palestinian Israeli citizens, and he said as much in a recent address, telling a delegation of doctors that, “unfortunately instructions are not strictly adhered to in the Arab sector. I ask for the cooperation of all Arab citizens of Israel…for your sake and for the sake of our shared future, please follow orders [otherwise] a lot of people will die, and these deaths could be prevented with your help.”[8]

The above article continues to illustrate Netanyahu’s subtle deflection of blame toward the Palestinians, thereby pre-empting any further criticism for his government’s inability to effectively tackle the spread of the virus. Undoubtedly, this is a tactic adopted from Trump’s unsophisticated and unintelligent rulebook, if indeed he actually possesses one at all. Unsurprisingly, India has also adopted a similar approach against its large Muslim minority.[9] Muslims appear to have replaced Jews as scapegoats for the current pandemic and it is unfortunate to observe the latter faith’s leadership’s amnesia regarding their not too distant past – particularly as it relates to the rise of Nazi Germany and the subsequent atrocities inflicted upon their forefathers:

Jews were similarly blamed for the bubonic plague in the 14th century – a smear that may have helped the Nazis in the 20th century. The Fed researchers found a stronger correlation between flu deaths and right-wing extremist voting “in regions that had historically blamed minorities, particularly Jews, for medieval plagues…”[10]

Dying to Live: Inherited Poverty

It is important to redirect focus closer to home at this juncture and consider effects of more far reaching proportions on additional ethnic minorities. While societally inherited wealth continues to provide institutional benefits for its ‘indigenous’ citizens, conversely, inherited poverty perpetuates generational disadvantages for minority groups – particularly those whose legacies are inextricably linked to the former transatlantic slave trade. In order to dispel the type of fragility that meets the above assertions by those in denial of this now established fact, it is necessary to cite categorical acknowledgements endorsing this position:

“…in truth, Britain gained rather more out of slavery than the retrospective joy of abolishing the trade in slaves, celebrations of which obscure the role rebellious slaves themselves played in their emancipation. The Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the wealth generated by slave labour. Britain’s major ports, cities and canals were built on invested slave money.

Several banks can trace their origins to the financing of the slave trade. Apart from the Barclays Brothers, who were slave traders, we also know of Barings and HSBC which can be traced back to Thomas Leyland’s banking house. The Bank of England also had close connections to the trade. Hundreds of Britain’s great houses were built with the wealth of slavery and the Church of England also acknowledges its pecuniary gains from slavery.

As an excellent project at University College London is showing, not only many contemporary millionaires and politicians but also perfectly ordinary middle-class people come from families which were compensated for the loss of slaves. The freed slaves, of course, never received such compensation and their families inherited, instead, the poverty and landlessness which blights them to this day. Capitalism itself, along with cheap beach holidays, would have been impossible without slavery.[11]

Robin DiAngelo also observes in her bestselling book, White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism:

Being perceived as white carries more than a mere racial classification; it is a social and institutional status and identity imbued with legal, political, economic, and social rights and privileges that are denied to others.[12]

Having established the above premise, attention can now be drawn to the disproportionately high death rates among ethnic minorities succumbing to the current coronavirus. Race and racial inequalities are finally being considered as significant risk factors behind these deaths in the UK:[13]

The revelation that people from minority groups appear to be over-represented among the coronavirus deaths, by as much as 27%, “confirmed the worst fears” of campaigners who said there was now no question of an excessive toll.”[14]

In the US, the statistics for the same group reveal an even more alarming picture:

Black Americans represent 13.4% of the American population, according to the US Census Bureau, but counties with higher black populations account for more than half of all Covid-19 cases and almost 60% of deaths, the study found.[15]

The above report also highlighted inherent disparities in the quality of life afforded to minorities and their white counterparts:

“Social conditions, structural racism, and other factors elevate risk for COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths in black communities,” wrote the scientists from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law…

“Structural factors including health care access, density of households, unemployment, pervasive discrimination and others drive these disparities, not intrinsic characteristics of black communities or individual-level factors.”[16]

Ample evidence continues to reveal these inherited disparities; however, they warranted scant attention until now. Indeed, as Afua Hirsh illustrates in her recent article, pre-coronavirus realities were such that:

Pakistani, black Caribbean and black African families have twice the rate of infant mortality as white people; black women have been dying in childbirth at five times the rates of white women; and black men and women have lower life expectancy than men and women from white and other ethnic groups…let’s not forget, 63% of the health workers who have died as a result of serving the public [are from ethnic minorities].”[17]

This section of the article will conclude with more academic analyses relating to inherited – or intergenerational poverty:

Past discrimination and opportunity denial created large differences between black and white families’ incomes. When parents’ resources affect children’s ability to accumulate resources, intergenerational continuity reproduces inequality, because proportionately more black children inherit poor backgrounds, reducing their chances of high income as adults.[18]

Additionally:

White families are twice as likely to receive an inheritance as black families, and that inheritance is nearly three times as much. Even among black families who inherit wealth, the racial wage gap is much larger, compared to white families who inherit wealth…

White households inherit more money, and more often, than black households. Being lucky enough to receive an inheritance should not be a determining factor of achieving the ever-elusive American dream.[19]

Open Season: Black Lives Platter?

Another scourge on western societies, like the US, is the apparent disregard for justice when it concerns ethnic minorities – African Americans in particular. The arrest of father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in February while the latter was simply ‘jogging while black’ is a prime example. Both assailants continued to proceed uninterrupted with their daily lives for weeks despite law enforcement agencies not only knowing their identities, but also possessing video footage of the killing. The latter footage recently went viral, provoking international outrage at the failure to arrest the pair. International condemnation prompted their arrest, not the US criminal justice system.[20] Unfortunately, this initial travesty of justice reverberates with those of Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in Eltham, southeast London on 22ndApril 1993.[21]

Racism is a pernicious disease that continues to plague almost every section of society. It should be of of little surprise therefore that Donald Trump is keen to endorse protestors, many from among his base of supporters, who are keen to reopen the economy.[22] His regular tweets to ‘liberate’ particular states, coupled with a shift in focus to reopen the economy – despite scientific advice and warnings to the contrary – suggest an altogether more sinister rationale for proceeding along this path. Since his base of support is predominately white Americans, including far-right extremist elements that have no issue with the disproportionately high death rates among ethnic minorities, it makes sense, according to his simplistic and childlike process of thinking, to simply reopen the entire US economy, particularly before upcoming elections. While the rationale behind this remains unspoken, there is no other plausible reason why he would suddenly opt for the current trajectory to reopen while the US death rate is the highest in the world – and still rising. Black lives don’t matter within this context and it remains open season so far as ethnic minorities are concerned. One only has to refer to yet another pre-coronavirus statistic to arrive at the same conclusion:

Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015, according to the findings of a Guardian study that recorded a final tally of 1,134 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers [that] year.

Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged…by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.[23]

Conclusion: From Black Death to Revolution?

As some far-right hardliners welcome the current pandemic as an opportunity to use the virus “…as a weapon to kill minorities, as others spread further hate and conspiracy…”[24] there is another conversation taking place, following what many already knew concerning the glaring socio-economic disparities adversely affecting minority groups in many western societies. However, the discourse this time is in regard to acquiring social justice, liberation – yes, that word again – and revolution. As Professor Kehinde Andrews explained:

Black radicalism is concerned with liberation of Black people from the West, not social equality within the system. Black radicalism unapologetically privileges Blackness analytically. But Blackness must be a cultural and expressive blank slate upon which we can build our revolution.”[25]

As that time approaches and the sounds of school playgrounds are filled, once again with bright-eyed children singing the age-old nursery rhyme, ‘Ring around the Rosie, a pocket full of Posies[26] (apparently written after the Black Death,) another more consciously astute group of young people will be nurtured on songs of defiance and resistance, like; ‘F%&K Da’ Police[27] and ‘Fight the Power[28] in preparation for continuing socio-economic and political challenges they will invariably face as minorities. Until then, it is essential to acknowledge, but not accept, the inherently flawed societal apparatus that continues to disadvantage and adversely affect minorities:

There is no healing for a broken people while the system that breaks us is left intact.[29]

This article has endeavoured to highlight various levels of structural sickness that point to the same societal condition; namely, institutionalised and systemic racism that result in the type of social injustices and disparities discussed. In reality, the Black Death never completely disappeared; however, with medical advances, we have become more adept at tackling this age-old disease:

Modern sanitation and public-health practices have greatly mitigated the impact of the disease but have not eliminated it. While antibiotics are available to treat the Black Death, according to The World Health Organization, there are still 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague every year.[30]

In the past we united to largely eliminate this devastating malady, so the question remains as to why other black deaths continue to plague our societies at such disproportionate levels.

 

 

 

 

[1] History.com: ‘The Black Death’, https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death accessed 9th May 2020.

[2] Ibid

[3] Wikipedia: ‘Black Death’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death accessed 9th May 2020.

[4] History.com: ‘The Black Death’, https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death accessed 9th May 2020.

[5] Tan, W: ‘US-China relations at a low as ‘blame-shifting’ sets back war against virus’, CNBC, 21st April 2020: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/22/coronavirus-trump-blames-china-virus-impact-on-trade-war.html

[6] Farivar, M: ‘How Far-Right Extremists Are Exploiting the COVID Pandemic,’ VOA News, 25th April 2020: https://www.voanews.com/covid-19-pandemic/how-far-right-extremists-are-exploiting-covid-pandemic

[7] History.com: ‘The Black Death’, https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death accessed 9th May 2020.

[8] Werleman, C J: ‘Yesterday, Jews were demonized for spreading disease. Today, it’s Muslims,’ TRT World, 14th April 2020: https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/yesterday-jews-were-demonised-for-spreading-disease-today-it-s-muslims-35395

[9] Ibid

[10] Manskar, N: ‘Influenza pandemic fueled rise of Nazi Party, research shows’, New York Post, 5th May 2020: https://nypost.com/2020/05/05/influenza-pandemic-fueled-rise-of-nazi-party-research/

[11] Gopal,P: ‘Much of Britain’s wealth is built on slavery. So why shouldn’t it pay reparations?’ New Statesman, 23rd April 2014: https://www.newstatesman.com/economics/2014/04/much-britains-wealth-built-slavery-so-why-shouldnt-it-pay-reparations

[12] DiAngelo, R: ‘White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,’ Penguin: https://amzn.eu/aPZ84Ko

[13] Barr, C; Kommenda, N; McIntyre, N & Voce, A: ‘Ethnic minorities dying of Covid-19 at higher rate, analysis shows,’ The Guardian, 22nd April 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/22/racial-inequality-in-britain-found-a-risk-factor-for-covid-19?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[14] Ibid

[15] Erdman, S L: ‘Black communities account for disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths in the US, study finds,’ CNN, 6th May 2020: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/05/health/coronavirus-african-americans-study/index.html

[16] Ibid

[17] Hirsch, A: ‘Britain doesn’t care about health inequalities. For minorities, that ignorance is deadly,’ The Guardian, 23rd April 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/23/britain-ignorant-health-inequalities-coronavirus-black-people-dying?CMP=share_btn_link

[18] Loury G: ‘A Dynamic Theory of Racial Income Differences. In: Wallace P, LaMond A, editors. Women, Minorities and Employment Discrimination. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books; 1977. pp. 153–86.

[19] Jones, J: ‘Receiving and inheritance helps white families more than black families,’ Economic Policy Institute, 17th February 2017: https://www.epi.org/publication/receiving-an-inheritance-helps-white-families-more-than-black-families/

[20] BBC News: ‘Ahmaud Arbery: Father and Son charged with murder of US black jogger,’ 8th May 2020: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52585505

[21] BBC News: ‘Stephen Lawrence murder: A timeline of how the story unfolded,’ 13th April 2018: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-26465916

[22] Shear, M D & Mervosh, S: ‘Trump Encourages Protest Against Governors Who Have Imposed Virus Restrictions,’ The New York Times, 29th April 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-governors.html

[23] Swaine, O; Laughland, J L & McCarthy, C: ‘Young black men killed by US police at highest rate in year of 1,134 deaths,’ The Guardian, 31st December 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[24] Colborne, M: ‘As world struggles to stop deaths, far right celebrates COVID-19,’ Aljazeera, 26th March 2020: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/world-struggles-stop-deaths-celebrates-covid-19-200326165545387.html

[25] Andrews, K: Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century,’ Zed Books, 2018, p. 174

[26] The Countdown Kids: ‘Ring Around the Rosies’ https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=ring+around+the+rosy+a+pocket+full+of+posies+meaning&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8 accessed on 10th May 2020.

[27] NWA: ‘Fuck Da Police,’ https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=NWA+fuck+da+police&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8 accessed on 10th May 2020.

[28] Public Enemy: ‘Fight the Power,’ https://www.google.com/search?safe=strict&client=safari&rls=en&ei=uD-3XqG1Do_DlwSK6aT4Bg&q=public+enemy+fight+the+power&oq=public+enemy+fight&gs_lcp=CgZwc3ktYWIQARgAMgIIADICCAAyAggAMgIIADICCAAyAggAMgIIADICCAAyAggAMgIIADoFCAAQkQI6BQgAEIMBOgQIABBDOgcIABCDARBDOgQIABAKUJsbWPdBYKBJaA5wAHgAgAHIAogB0xOSAQUyLTEuN5gBAKABAaoBB2d3cy13aXo&sclient=psy-ab

[29] Andrews, K: Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century,’ Zed Books, 2018, p. 119

[30] History.com: ‘The Black Death’, https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death accessed 9th May 2020.

 

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