By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
COVID-19 has changed me. It has aged me, and I am now weathered in ways I could have never imagined. I have become my Nana, who used to say, with a sigh, that you reach a point in your life when nothing that White America does surprises you. She said that when White folks lost a finger, they took our arm. If they lost a toe, we knew our foot was going next. When they were sad, they made sure we were depressed. And, when they got a cold, we knew we were going to get pneumonia. She said that Black folks had learned over time how to weather the storms of White America. We do it because we are resilient. We do it because we are survivors. And we do it, she would say wearily, because when the only choices left are the start of the morning and the ending of the night, Black folks will always choose a new beginning. I believe that we are now in a long seasoning of weathering.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared that the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, was a pandemic. Two days later, America was in a state of emergency. As everything began to close, a cold fear set over me because if White America was in a pandemic, Black America was in a syndemic. Merrill Singer first developed this term in the mid-1990s and is defined as the aggregation of two or more concurrent disease clusters in a population with biological interactions, which exacerbate the prognosis and burden of disease. It is what happens when #BlackLivesMatters meets COVID-19 amid a never ending relentless storm of structural, economic and sociocultural inequity. It is what happens when it is mourning time in Black America, and we are once again reminded that it is not America at war that concerns us, but America as war that keeps us up at night. My Nana would say that we should have seen the mourning coming.
On Jan. 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that the United States had its first case of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). The patient had recently returned to Washington state from Wuhan, China. On that day, the front cover of most newspapers focused on the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, climate change, and the Virginia gun rally. One day later, in response to a question about the virus, Trump stated, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Five days later, the front page of most newspapers reported on the death of Kobe Bryant and, in a smaller story, noted that China, due to the rapid spread of the novel Coronavirus, was locking down their country. Here in America, as the rest of the world started to express concern and alarm, we did not pay attention. By Jan. 29, Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, stated, “The whole world needs to be on alert now. The whole world needs to take action and be ready for any cases.”
On Feb. 2, Trump’s Executive Order that banned anyone who had traveled to China in the last 14 days, except for U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and their close family members, went into effect. By then, one could argue it was too late, and the information was too confusing and contradictory. We were advised by our public health officials, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Jerome Adams, not to wear face masks, and we were stumbling along unclear about what it was or how we could protect ourselves from it. Less than three months later, on April 28, America reported one million positive cases of COVID-19, roughly a third of all reported cases in the world. Forty-four days later, we hit two million. Twenty-eight days later, we had three million people who had tested positive for COVID-19. At the same time, our death toll began to rise. It took just four months for America to reach 100,000 deaths, the largest death toll of any nation in the world. This number exceeded the number of American military combat facilities and matched the number of Americans who died during the 1968 flu pandemic.
We are being led by a madman who does not believe in science, routinely discrediting our national health advisors, refusing to wear a mask or practice social distancing, and pushing to reopen this country. These are painful moments because as life has moved forward, the coronavirus death rates within the Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities have continued to rise in all age groups. We are more likely to contract the disease and more likely to die from it. There have always been deep health disparities in this country tied to poverty and systemic racism, but this syndemic has shown us that inequality is a slip knot designed to choke and kill us.
It is mourning time (again). American is now the global leader in COVID-19 cases. There are over 6.5 million Americans who have tested positive, and over 200,000 Americans have died from it. These are the moments when I look across this country’s landscape, and I feel that this syndemic might break us all. White America demands so much from us, it just takes, and it takes. And where there is nothing left for them to take from us, I believe that they try to take our soul. This country will survive this pandemic, a vaccine will come, life will move on, and things will go back to normal. I wonder what will happen to us. My Nana used to say that we are survivors and that we are resilient. She said that we would always choose the start of a new morning. I hope that as we choose the new morning, then we also bring it back to America. At this moment, during this time, that hope is all I have left.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #Blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. Recently selected for the Essence Woke 100 List, she is the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons. She launched #BlackCovidStories as a way to archive our stories about Covid-19. She is sheltering in Baltimore with her husband and their two sons.
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