Permanent Black Man
Why You Should Stop Joking That Black People Are Immune to Coronavirus
There’s a fatal history behind the claim that African Americans are more resistant to diseases like Covid-19 or yellow fever.
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 capital. 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.
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, 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.