Racial paranoia and pandemics 

When I was expecting my second child, I was taken ill. I remember getting into hospital 7 months pregnant with a fever in the early hours of the morning. Shaking and with Braxton-Hicks contractions. As I arrived in ‘Accident and emergency’, I was asked whether I had been to ‘Africa’ ‘recently’. I answered negatively. I had only been to Africa once, as a child about twenty years previously. Once booked in, I was asked the same question by the triage nurse who saw me. I once more said I had not. She assessed me then decided I needed to be admitted. I was taken to the ward and allocated a bed. A blood sample was taken from me by someone else, I believe a nurse. Once more I was asked if I had travelled to Africa. As far I as knew, I still had not.

I eventually saw the obstetrician while I was now in bed trembling, sweating, clearly anxious and with a rocketing blood pressure wondering what the hell was that illness I had that which was so serious and unknown I created such angst. I was again asked the same question. I was not treated with overt hostility. Rather with fear and apprehension and also with clear suspicion. As though I was guilty of bringing into the hospital something dirty or dangerous, some mysterious disease. Although no staff had the transparency to share their racialised concerns, as a black woman of African descent with an unexplained fever, I became a possible threat. A contagion risk. It clearly did not matter that I had not been to ‘Africa’. This could not be heard and contained. I became someone who could carry some deadly African disease. At times of collective paranoia as an aside, my blackness always trumps my Frenchness. Such is the power of racial tropes.

This experience occurred at the height of the Ebola media circus in case you had not guessed. Hence why I was asked four times if I had been to Africa. And, despite my repeated negations, I continued to be treated with a veil of disbelief and suspicion until I was diagnosed with a urine infection. It seems blackness + fever made concerns over Ebola overtake the care afforded to me, rather than the most common infection in pregnancy and, despite there having been very few cases of patients carrying the Ebola virus returning to the UK from ‘Africa’.  This is racial paranoia. Sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly the Braxton-Hicks contractions seemingly morphed into the real deal. In the end, I had to have an emergency C section a few hours after admission. I will never know whether the stress and anxiety I experienced in the critical first hours of contact with the hospital staff played a role in this clinical outcome. Perhaps. Perhaps not. We do however know that stress and anxiety have been linked to premature labour.

Across the world people of Asian backgrounds have become the targets of xenophobic and racist assaults. Both verbal and physical. There is no doubt that this violence is fuelled by racist political rhetorics and media circuses around the same. Trump for example has repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as ‘the Chinese virus’. In this context the mounting racial prejudice, discrimination, violence towards anyone who could be taken to ‘look Chinese’, is no accident. Further, the rampant racism has strong colonial echoes. The association between uncleanliness, and disease with people deemed of inferior races is a classic colonial trope. Indeed, fantasies and constructions of disease contamination and threats are central to the racist imagination. It is therefore not surprising that virus related fears would quickly become racialised and trigger racial hostility, suspicion and paranoia towards people racialised as Other. It would take very little to trigger this association which already exists in our collective or social unconscious.

From racial hygiene to eugenics

Black and brown bodies have been believed to be infectious liabilities since time immemorial. Still, the threat of a virus originating from China in the age of globalisation where China is widely believed to threaten to become the next ‘superpower’ that will wipe the West out of geopolitical and economic dominance; was bound to become a particularly sensationalistic hit and to arouse primordial angst, irrespective of external realities. Add to this, old colonial notions of exotic barbarism and ‘uncivilisation’ and fear of change and what we have is a recipe for deadly racial paranoia and aggression. Disease has been an ideological tool to maintain racial purity via brutal politics of segregation and racial protection implemented to avoid the spread of inferior characteristics or traits and therefore and to contain risks to Western civilisation. The term racial hygiene has been used to characterise Nazi politics of eugenics. The latter were marked by sustained campaigns to avoid so called miscegenation and were underlined by the belief in the existence of a racial hierarchy threatened by inferior races which thus pause risks of contamination to races constructed as superior.

The third Reich administration believed that the Aryan race the ultimate human race and, that it was superior because it was the purest. Aryans therefore occupied, according to Nazism, the top place in the hierarchy of all beings. Incidentally, they ideally had the whitest of white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. They also were often depicted as tall if not statuesque. Relatively young. They were of course never disabled (or gay). Those who did not match this description were deemed to be physically and intellectually inferior to various degrees. Non-Aryan races quickly became constructed within Nazism as impure, unclean, morally, genetically and intellectually inferior and evil thus, dangerous. The fascist idea of racial purity therefore does not only suggest the fallacy of an unsullied, authentic, original race or genetic pool, it calls for its protection from dilution and mixing.

The fear of contamination, the foundation of racial hygiene politics, is consequently itself reliant on fantasised threats to one’s nation’s health, welfare and security. Although these beliefs may seem far from us today, they really are not. The fear of contamination remains a powerful political device. It is weaponised for example to regulate immigration and gain popular support for draconian if not inhumane border control practices. Although racial hygiene may have transformed from overt into covert manifestations, the same racial thinking is in operation. The discourse of threat to national security and to public health and safety for example, is undeniably linked to the desire to limit migration from black and brown bodies originating from the global South. Therefore access to legal status, right of movement and travel continue to be distributed along racial lines so that those bodies deemed susceptible to carry disease, which could overwhelm the country (and the NHS) are kept under strict control and restriction. These bodies have, by and large remained the same bodies subjected to racial hygiene and eugenics.

Unsurprisingly thus, in addition to the politics of COVID-19 being played along racial lines, they are being played along the lines of health, ability and age. The real identity politics some of us would argue. Necropolitics. Controversial guidance is recommending that healthcare staff provide preferential limited life-saving resources such as ventilators, to those deemed to have more optimistic prognoses. Whilst these clinical decisions may be rationalised very easily, invariably they leave those with chronic conditions, disabilities or in old age at risk of murder or at best assisted dying without consent. Instructions which as a result, clearly reinforce ageist and ableist macro messages and social discourses about whose bodies is valuable, whose life is deemed to matter and what kind of existence is worthy of being lived. We are without any doubt in the domain of social eugenics. Of further note, these medical directives came about within a socio-political context of increased normalisation and social sanction of the systemic violence disabled people face. Again thus, we may argue the terrain has been prepared and that nothing we are currently witnessing came without our collective complicity and approval.

Concluding thoughts

This piece does not call into the question the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic. It does not trivialise the need for isolation. If anything I hope it makes a stronger case for those of us who are more social justice and equality orientated, to do all we can to stop the spread of the virus. The bottom line is, as always, it is the most marginalised, the less valued and more expendable bodies who will carry the burden of the costs of this crisis. We are living through unprecedented times, we hear… But amidst the COVID-19 global discourses, the terror, and anguish that the virus has created, there is much déjà vu. The corona virus is deadly. Still, arguably less deadly than famine, malnutrition and malaria which continue to cumulatively kill millions globally every year. Consistent with the blatant egocentrism and eurocentrism which sit at the core of the discourse of this crisis and in part its response, the pandemic is arguably exposing us to the worst of humanity. Including eugenics as the less socially valued lives are left to die or set to be left to die. Colonial antics as African bodies are once more becoming preferential sites for medical experimentation for a corona vaccine and, capitalist hoarding and greed as many with the means to do so, are liquidating stores of basic necessities and unscrupulous businesses are getting rich off the back of the most vulnerable. Early indications are that people of colour, including healthcare staff are disproportionately dying from the virus within social structures and, anti-Chinese sentiment and violence are soaring.  So we can add this to the mix. Again, we are living through unprecedented times, the story goes. And certainly the global response and management of the COVID-19 virus is unparalleled. Perhaps too sadly we are living through very familiar times, all too familiar for many of us as human pathology and dysfunction in all their glory are once more, laying themselves bare for us all to see.

Thank you for reading

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