Why You Should Stop Joking That Black People Are Immune to Coronavirus

In the past two days alone, two African-American NBA basketball players have tested positive for coronavirus, and several cases have turned up among native populations in both African and Carribbean countries, puncturing any theory that black people are immune to the disease. Yet the memes persist.

Statements like this one are surely made in jest. But there are at least some instances of actual scientific or medical arguments, which outlets including Reuters and Politifact have already debunked. While some may argue that the jokes, at least, are harmless, U.S. history evinces how unsubstantiated claims about race-based resilience to disease have led to devastating outcomes, particularly for African Americans. The impacts of such beliefs still affect how people of color are medically treated — or not — today.

The 18th-century yellow fever outbreak in the Americas is instructive here. In the 1740s, yellow fever had overtaken coastal port cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, driving people into delirium, endless vomiting, hemorrhaging, and eventually death. The physician John Lining recorded his observations about the disease in Charleston after inspecting slave ships and their cargo —including captive Africans — finding that it was almost exclusively white people who were succumbing to the disease. These observations helped reinforce already-stirring beliefs that Africans had some kind of supernatural inoculation to some of the deadliest diseases floating along the American coast.

Lining’s medical briefs became the reference manuals for another physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, when in 1793 a yellow fever outbreak took hold of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which at the time was the nation’s capitol. Close to 20,000 people — half of the population — fled Philly that year, while many African Americans actually stayed in the city at the request of Rush, who wanted to train them to nurse, care-take, and dig graves for the thousands of people dying of yellow fever.

Rush was operating on the belief that black people were immune to the disease, and black Philadelphians believed him when he told them that they were. Rush not only was an outspoken abolitionist, but also friend of the black clergymen Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, founders of the African Methodist Episcopal church, and two of the most influential African Americans of the time.

Jones and Allen helped convince black people to stay behind to assist Rush, telling their congregations that it was their Christian duty to help care for the lives of white Philadelphians. But Rush was wrong. Many of the African Americans in his medical camp contracted the disease. Hundreds of them died. Allen became afflicted and almost died himself. While Rush was a highly respected doctor — the American Psychiatric Association would later title him the “father of American psychiatry” — he was relying on faulty claims about race and health conditions that proved fatally wrong. The Philadelphia massacre became an abject lesson in what happens when race gets bandied about amidst the rages of a major health maelstrom.

As Dr. Rana Hogarth wrote in her book Medicalizing Blackness about the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia: “The idea of innate black immunity placed an undue burden on the city’s black inhabitants. For those black people who did stay behind to help, it meant buying into a belief that at its core defined their bodies as being distinctive and unequal to whites.”

This is why Hogarth bristles a little every time she sees memes fly by on Twitter or Facebook pointing out fewer documented cases of coronavirus in Africa, or fewer deaths of African Americans, as indications that black people are somehow impervious to the disease. Such statements, whether made literally or comically, are rooted in racist beliefs that hearken back to the 18th century yellow fever disaster that almost decimated black Philadelphia.

“I can understand the idea of saying black people as a group have suffered so much, particularly if we look at medical history, that we’re going to flip the script,” said Hogarth. “But let’s just pump the brakes on this because there were very real moments in history where African Americans were believed to be immune or were peculiar in some way, and it wasn’t seen as a bonus. It was actually seen as, ‘OK, now you have to stay behind and put your lives at risk because we just assume you won’t get this,’ and that’s the part where I kind of pause and say, OK, this is not good.”

Medical theories about black immunity persisted after the Philadelphia yellow fever outbreak, refortifying political and economic justifications for keeping Africans enslaved. The thought was that black people are best suited for chattel labor because of their ability to fight off attacks on their health, even though the Philadelphia case disproved that. Some medical authorities attempted seemingly savvier takes on black immunity, adding that this superpower was linked not just to race, but to proximity to certain geographic locations and climates, mainly in the tropics. Those takes ended up as part of the Confederate South’s arguments for preserving its plantation and slave-based economy.

The climate-based argument was that certain deadly diseases couldn’t survive in warmer temperatures, which happens to be the same argument that a cruise ship line made recently about coronavirus, to convince people to keep booking trips with them. As the Miami New Times reported on March 10, Norwegian Cruises ordered sales workers to give customers scripted lines such as: “The coronavirus can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise,” and, “Scientists and medical professionals have confirmed that the warm weather of the spring will be the end of the coronavirus.”

There is no scientific evidence that coronavirus is vulnerable at any temperature, just like the claims of earlier centuries that diseases like yellow fever can’t survive in tropical conditions or in tropical people were either overblown or flat-out false. The only thing that inoculated a person from yellow fever back then, says Hogarth, was actually contracting the disease and being lucky enough to survive. Since yellow fever originated in mosquitos native to West Africa, the black-immunity truthers of the time didn’t take into account how many Africans may have died from the disease in their native lands. Today, almost all cases of yellow fever (90%) occur in the tropical areas of Africa and South America.

Beyond climate and geography, ideas about race and health powers continued to flourish throughout the 18th century among white medical professionals, taking as gospel declarations that black skin was thicker than white skin, which emboldened doctors to experiment on black bodies. One major medical idea percolating back then was that black people feel less pain and suffering than other races — an idea that became the underpinning for the surgical experimentations that Dr. James Marion Sims performed on black women in his quest to perfect procedures for fixing incontinence and reproductive problems. Today he is considered the “father of gynecology,” though monuments of his likeness have recently been taken down in recent years.

For Hogarth, the way race was treated in health matters back then informs how we talk about both today, and not often in ways that illuminate the actual impacts of particular diseases on black people.

“So for example, you know when people say, ‘Oh the black women’s maternal mortality rate is appalling — a much higher rate than for whites,’? It’s good that we recognize that, but can we not make it about there being something wrong with black women?” said Hogarth. “Can we say that maybe black women are more likely to be discriminated against, to not be taken seriously, to have their complaints ignored than white women?”

Race, or rather racism, and health have also spelled doom for Chinese Americans. Unlike black people, they have not been deemed uniquely indestructible, but rather uniquely susceptible and contagious when it comes to disease. In the early 1900s, Chinatown was burned down in Honolulu out of a belief that the neighborhood was spreading the disease.

Conservatives (and USA Today) have been eager to label coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” or the “China virus,” further stigmatizing this ethnic population. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Chinese residents and students were getting racially harassed in the city well before the first case even turned up there.

“Personally I find the xenophobia and anti-Asian responses very troubling because the quick move from epidemic control to racist or otherwise discriminatory practices of public health has a long history and we seem to be on the precipice of writing a new chapter in that history,” said Alexandre White, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University also affiliated with the university’s department of the history of medicine. “That should be a concern not just for people of Asian descent, but any group that has been marginalized or oppressed for any reason. We can today see a lot of commonalities around racist discourse around Covid-19 and broader ideologies of racism throughout history.”

Much of that racist discourse was incubated during that 18th century medical era response to the yellow fever outbreak. Race was used to formulate policies around who should and shouldn’t be exposed to a deadly disease, and then race was weaponized in the disease’s aftermath to determine who was responsible for it.  

“In Philadelphia, [they] did what [they were] supposed to do, and look at what they get in return,” said Hogarth. “Their work is part of this long history of exasperation among African Americans who are saying that we are tired of trying to be part of this society even when we are excluded deliberately, and what we get is a minimizing of our suffering, and then blamed when things don’t go well.”

It’s clearly not a laughing matter.

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Why Cities Should Support Right-of-Way Charging

Cities that are serious about reducing carbon pollution from transportation need to promote walking and biking, expand transit and micro-mobility services, manage development, and use pricing to reduce traffic and parking congestion.

Many of these steps are designed to reduce the use of single occupancy cars. At the same time, though, cities will also need to electrify everything that moves, including those passenger cars. Just as our approach to solid waste requires a “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach, city transportation policy needs to pursue a “both-and” strategy. Making it easier to use an electric car does not conflict with encouraging alternative transportation options, any more than making it easier to recycle conflicts with discouraging single-use packaging.

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Why We Should Stop Conflating Cities With Innovation and Creativity

“It can be argued that urban innovation and creativity have combined, giving birth to the smart city. This new city showcases urban technological and cultural prowess, furthering the triumph of the city.”

Few people, particularly those cognizant of current writing on cities, culture, and technology, would blink at the sentence above. “Urban innovation,” the “smart city,” and the “triumph of the city”—these have become familiar as buzz phrases and even book titles.

But what about peripheral regions, rural areas, and small towns—can’t they be smart and innovative? And what exactly is meant by “the triumph of the city”? Triumph over what?

Language can perpetuate and reveal fundamental biases. Gender scholars have analyzed how male bias has permeated language, and how it can shape the way women and people of other genders are perceived and how they perceive themselves. I find that there is a strong pro-urban bias embedded in the language used to discuss innovation and creativity—a bias that makes it difficult to conceive of them outside of cities. The non-urban is systematically, and usually unconsciously, devalued by scholars and policymakers. And this bias persists despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

Why innovation outside of cities gets ignored

In fact, there is plenty of innovation—that is, the introduction of new products, processes, or organizational approaches—outside of cities.  This is overlooked in studies of innovation’s geography because data used to identify innovation (often patents) are themselves biased toward cities in various ways. For example, they tend to undercount process and organizational innovation, innovations protected by secrecy, and innovations in smaller establishments (all prevalent outside cities), and to count defensive patents tabled by (often city-based) large companies as innovation.

As Jakob Eder has recently shown, multiple studies reveal that establishments outside of cities are just as likely to innovate as those within them. These studies also reveal that innovation in local firms does not necessarily lead to local growth and development, since expansion and growth require resources and labor that are easier to access in cities.

Studies that provide evidence of innovation outside of cities are basically of two types: statistical studies using detailed survey or administrative data (which have less spatial bias than patents) to investigate whether firms outside of cities are as likely to innovate as those in cities, or case studies that describe examples of innovation in non-urban settings.

The statistical evidence is important, because it establishes that the case studies are not mere exceptions. Neil Lee and Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, for instance, studied 9,000 Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in creative industries in the U.K. They concluded that “firm characteristics are more important than location in determining the likelihood of innovation” and found “no support for the hypothesis that urban creative industries firms are particularly innovative.”

Markus Grillitsch and Magnus Nilsson, analyzing administrative data covering over 32,000 firms in Sweden, found “no evidence […] that knowledge-intensive firms grow faster in knowledge-rich regions.” This study, like many others, shows that firms in peripheral areas are not necessarily at a disadvantage. My own survey-based research in Canada, on both services and manufacturing, shows that certain types of innovation—process innovation in particular—are more prevalent farther away from cities and that, for similar firms, the probability that they introduce an innovation does not vary between urban and non-urban locations.

Fast vs. slow innovation

There are differences, though. Whereas firms in cities often introduce innovations that rely on intense market-related interactions (fast innovation), this type of innovation falls away as one moves to the periphery, where innovative firms predominantly operate in more technical fields and rely more on internal capacity and targeted collaborations (slow innovation). Two of many examples: Jackson Labs operates out of Bar Harbor, Maine (five hours north of Boston), and Dehnel-Particle Accelerator Components and Engineering is based in Nelson, British Columbia (seven hours from both Calgary and Vancouver).

Why does this evidence have so little effect on urban bias? The bias is such that only urban types of innovation and urban spatial patterns are recognized. There are few fast innovators in low-density regions, and few innovation clusters. Their absence signals—to a predominantly urban-based research community—the absence of innovation.

In this conceptual diagram, the urban cluster of innovators (white dots) is more noticeable, but the proportion of innovators in the city and outside the city is the same. (Richard Shearmur)

The graphic above shows this for clusters. It clearly illustrates a concentration (or cluster) of innovators (white dots) in the city, yet, less obviously, it also illustrates an identical proportion of innovators in the city and non-city (25 percent). To further compound the bias, while 100 percent of cities in the graphic are “innovative” (i.e. have at least one innovator), only 40 percent of non-city jurisdictions are. An urban scholar setting out to find innovation in the periphery is unlikely to simply stumble across it; it is almost impossible to “see” dispersed innovators, and without seeing, it is easy not to believe.

What about the creative non-city? Whether it is Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson’s work on aboriginal music in Northern Australia, Heike Mayer and Rahel Meili’s examination of experimental highland entrepreneurs in Switzerland, Bron-Yr-Aur in Wales (where Led Zeppelin composed some major hits), or blues music originating in the Deep South, there are endless examples of culture and creativity thriving in rural and peripheral settings.

Non-urban creativity has been overlooked because creativity is only expected from canonical (urban) cultural sectors and (urban) “creative” professions. Creativity from other sources, or which calls upon manual and experience-based skills, falls outside the canon. Given the types of creativity recognized by most urban scholarship, the term “creative city” is almost a tautology.

Smart non-cities

Finally, “smartness.” Rural industries such as mining, farming, forestry, and fishing have integrated GPS, satellite monitoring, and remote management techniques at rates equal to the urban adoption of smart technologies. Furthermore, as Elisabeth Roberts and Leanne Townsend show in their study of creative practitioners in rural communities, these communities and their residents are highly connected (even though sometimes at slower speeds): They use the internet and social media to network across vast distances, identifying common problems and interests in ways that were not possible a few years ago.

Just as for innovation, smartness differs between the urban and rural. In cities, administrations are directly involved, managing complex transportation, water, and waste networks; in rural areas, it is industries, communities, and individuals that are smart, often preceding local governments.

Given this evidence, the systematic association of “smart,” “innovative,” and “creative” with “urban” indeed constitutes a bias. In Canada, 30 percent of the population lives more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from a metropolitan area of 500,000 people, and 20 percent of people live in rural areas (places with no town over 10,000 people). Celebrating the urban is laudable, but this has unfortunately morphed into an unspoken and linguistically entrenched devaluing of the non-urban, where much of the population lives.

There is a final twist to this argument, because another bias permeates the urban discourse: a pro-innovation, pro-creativity, and pro-smartness bias. Innovation is not always desirable. Not only can some innovations be destructive (such as financial innovations prior to 2008), innovation today is often celebrated solely because it incites consumption. This boosts GDP and profits, but fuels resource depletion, pollution, and climate change. Smartness rests on (sometimes intensive) energy use, throw-away electronics, and data gathering, with concomitant privacy and monopoly issues.

As suggested by Mario Pansera and Richard Owen, maybe some of today’s most avant-garde innovation is occurring in global backwaters where frugality and maintenance and reuse of machines are introducing new environmentally sustainable practices. “[N]ew business models and new policies that foster grassroots eco-innovation might not only be relevant for developing countries, but offer transfer potential from the ‘south’ to the ‘north’ (innovation ‘blowback’).” The same wind may start blowing from the periphery to the center.

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