Elena Comay del Junco, Introduction to “Racial Inequality During a Pandemic: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives” (Symposium) [2020 C4eJ 85]

[➡︎ read the rest of the symposium | watch the workshop video]

Elena Comay del Junco*

In the early days of the pandemic’s arrival in North American consciousness which of course came far later than the physical arrival of the virus itself, a delay that brought with it deadly consequences, the line from governments, from the media, from “civil society,” from corporations was that we were all in this together. A virus did not discriminate. It could be spread from young to old and back. It could strike the rich as it could strike the poor. Insured or uninsured. Black or white. US born citizen or undocumented immigrant. City or country. We were, after all, all in this together.

Then came the news that not only were the elderly suffering disproportionately to their share of the population, but that non-white, and in particular Black, Americans were bearing the brunt of the disease. For those who have spent time examining the state of public health in the United State – and I do not mean academic experts, but simply those who make a point of reading the periodical reportages on particular or general racial inequalities in health and medicine — this too was unsurprising. The causes for this began to be discussed: lack of access to healthcare (due to un- and underinsurance, due to the simple absence of medical facilities in poor and Black neighborhoods); medical racism; underlying conditions attributable in large part to the noxious combination of, again, inadequate healthcare, of lack of access to good food, of poverty, of the stresses to the body’s allostatic load that public health researchers hypothesize results from simply existing in a deeply racist society.

There was plenty, if not enough, reporting. But there was not much shift in the narrative. Indeed rather than the prior calls for neighborly solidarity shifting to incorporate an explicitly anti-racist message, the clear evidence of the profound racial inequality of this pandemic was accompanied by the clamor for reopening the economy. (Grandma be damned, as the lieutenant governor of Texas infamously put it). Talk began to circulate of sacrifice. The need to make hard choices between public health and the economy. Sacrifice, in the abstract, is one thing. There may be times when sacrifice is a legitimate political question. But here we must ask not just “is the economy worth this bloody offering,” but who is being sacrificed and who is deciding. The increasing clarity of the racial character of the pandemic made premature decisions to re-open easier. It is very hard to escape the conclusion that the decision to re-open the American economy became, for those making it, a far simpler one once it became clear that those who would suffer were the elderly, African Americans and, as the subsequent outbreaks in Indigenous communities confirmed, Native Americans. In short, the American state’s response has been a perfect example of necropolitics, an exercise in deciding not just who to keep alive, but who to let die.

Yolonda Wilson’s contribution to this symposium explores precisely this moment in the pandemic and poses the question of citizenship: who is included and who is excluded in our imagined communities, by connecting the current moment to perhaps the most enduring concept in the history of western political philosophy, that of the polis.

For my own part, I want to pose the question of how, in the midst of the pandemic but also, more recently, in the largest uprising for black liberation in a generation, are the mixture of stories and statistics being used to make an argument and demand for a fundamental transformation of health and medicine as we know it.

Korey Garibaldi, meanwhile, takes a long view of the racial history of medicine. He situates not just the current pandemic, but pattern of medical racism and health inequality more broadly within a historical frame that reaches back to the 19th century.

All three of these essays were originally conceived in the early days of the pandemic and grow out of an (online) panel held on TK. While the core contentions retain their validity, certain aspects, perhaps at the level of sensibility, may seem already dated. However, rather than try to smooth out any untimeliness, I think it rather best to conceive of this not just as a set of historical and philosophical analyses of the pandemic, but also as an exercise in attempting to grasp, however partially, the present in thought.

*Elena Comay del Junco is Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Connecticut.