Even scientists are not beyond leaping to unfounded assumptions of innate racial difference. When it comes to Covid-19, the truth is much more complexby Angela Saini / June 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
On 8th February, in the early days of the pandemic, a far-right American website posted the headline: “STILL No Non-Chinese Deaths from coronavirus.” It claimed that Chinese people were so biologically exceptional that a virus originating in Wuhan couldn’t possibly infect white people in Europe, even if it reached that far. This nugget of nonsense barely survived a month before being comprehensively debunked by the spread of Covid-19 through Italy and then western Europe.
We may be united in our vulnerability, but as the crisis has rolled on, we have seen more and more strange speculation around human difference, part of it fed by the idea that the races are so distinct that some are innately more susceptible than others.
Early on, one widely-circulated notion held that black people were naturally immune to the virus. That melted away as people of black and minority ethnic backgrounds began to die in disproportionate numbers in the United States and the UK: by May it was reported that African Americans constituted half of coronavirus deaths in Chicago, despite being less than a third of the population. Suddenly, the narrative switched to the possibility that black people were innately more vulnerable.
Rarely have racial myths risen and fallen so quickly. The habit of forming myths in the first place has deep roots in the scientific racism of 19th-century Europe, when slavery and colonialism were justified by the assumption that non-white people were biologically inferior: white slaveowners claimed that black slaves felt less pain than they did. But even today, many people—including scientists—are not beyond leaping to assumptions of racial difference.
In early April, prominent medical researchers told the Science Media Centre that genetic differences in race, a socially-defined category if ever there was one, might account for the emerging race gap among the casualties. In early May, this idea had become so popular that I found myself having to reassure a British Asian dentist who got in touch to ask if his genes might make it unsafe for him to return to work. Another unsubstantiated theory posited that Vitamin D deficiencies might be compromising the immune systems of those with darker skin, accounting for the gaps in virus deaths.
One of the problems with drawing snap…