Above Photo: A covid testing site in New York City. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images.
Black people were disproportionately impacted by the covid pandemic.
The causes of the crisis were systemic, not genetic.
I know that opinions about COVID-19 and the vaccines related to it are still as varied as they are passionate, at least in the US where this government did absolutely nothing under two presidents to protect people and save lives in the midst of a global pandemic. But let me just be the one to say it if you were afraid to. Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s recent comments about the virus are wackadoodle, but should not be dismissed outright because of his dismissal of US racialized capitalism that fueled the deadly outcome of the pandemic in the US among certain groups of people.
In a video posted by the New York Post, Kennedy, Jr. is seen speaking at what is described as a press event in New York City, and says to other guests seated at the dinner table with him, “COVID-19. There is an argument that it is ethnically targeted. COVID-19 attacks certain races disproportionately. COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”
In response to the backlash against those bizarre comments, Kennedy tried to explain himself in a tweet a few days later saying, “The @nypost story is mistaken. I have never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews. I accurately pointed out — during an off-the-record conversation — that the U.S. and other governments are developing ethnically targeted bioweapons and that a 2021 study of the COVID-19 virus shows that COVID-19 appears to disproportionately affect certain races since the furin cleavage docking site is most compatible with Blacks and Caucasians and least compatible with ethnic Chinese, Finns, and Ashkenazi Jews. In that sense, it serves as a kind of proof of concept for ethnically targeted bioweapons. I do not believe and never implied that the ethnic effect was deliberately engineered.”
The study Kennedy cites is actually a July 2020 study – not a 2021 study – that he claims backs up his comments. But I don’t think it says what he thinks it does. The Background of the study reads, in part: “…Morbidity and mortality due to COVID19 rise dramatically with age and co-existing health conditions, including cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Human genetic factors may contribute to the extremely high transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 and to the relentlessly progressive disease observed in a small but significant proportion of infected individuals,” but the background statement goes on to state that “these [human genetic factors] are largely unknown.”
So at first glance, I’m not convinced that this study says what RFK, Jr. claims it does, but just to be sure, I read the whole study, and aside from admittedly not understanding the scientific jargon, a few other things raise my suspicions.
First, the study notes that “Clinical studies have reported that incidence and mortality rates are significantly different between male and female COVID-19 patients, and the disease is associated with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer and cardiovascular disorders, in particular individuals with hypertension receiving anti-hypertensive medications.” It is further noted that the study offers, “potential explanations for differential genetic susceptibility to COVID-19 as well as for risk factors, including those with cancer and the high-risk group of male patients…”
Did RFK, Jr. mention anything about COVID-19 “targeting” men? Because the study notes that men seem to be more negatively affected by the virus than women. Did he mention people with pre-existing conditions being among those “targeted” by COVID-19 in his comments? The study points out that connection as well.
Then, once you get past all the biomedical jargon, the study actually admits its own limitations, and it is a whopper. It states that “A few limitations merit consideration. Current analysis examined massive genomic data from general population, not COVID-19 patient-specific populations. All genetic associations identified in current study are urgently needed to be tested in COVID-19 patients in the near future.” If I’m reading this correctly – and maybe I’m not because I’m not a high-profile son of a former Senator white man running for president like RFK, Jr., so maybe I’m just not understanding this – doesn’t this mean that this study was not conducted by examining the genetic material of people with COVID-19? If that is correct, how can there be a scientific claim that there is ethnically-specific genetic targeting of certain groups of people when the genes of no one who had COVID-19 of any ethnicity were tested? Pardon me if I’m missing something, but this makes no sense!
Of course, the response to RFK, Jr.’s comments has not been centered on the sketchiness of the cited study, but around his suggestion that European Jews have some kind of genetic immunity to COVID-19. This claim was made in the same conversation in which RFK, Jr. floated the idea that the U.S. “put hundreds of millions of dollars into ethnically targeted microbes” and that there were labs in Ukraine collecting Russian and Chinese DNA “so we can target people by race,” So of course his comments sound very much like age-old antisemitic tropes of Jewish conspiracies to take over or control the world.
But do not be distracted by these claims of RFK, Jr. being antisemitic. First, because he is an enthusiastic supporter of the racist apartheid settler-colonial state of Israel, as evidenced by the public repudiation of his previous support for musician Roger Waters over his stance on COVID vaccine mandates and conflict in Ukraine. When RFK, Jr. learned that Waters is a very public supporter of Palestine, he deleted his tweet supporting Waters and went on the Israel Apology Tour, stating that he supports Israel’s “right to exist and its right to protect its security,” but only supports “a humane outcome and a recognition ultimately of the aspirations of the Palestinian people.” It shouldn’t have to be explained that thieves have no right to claim they have a right to exist and to protect their stolen property – in this case Palestine’s land. And what kind of compassion and benevolence are we expecting thieves to have toward their victims, especially when the crime is ongoing? What type of “humane outcome” is RFK Jr. expecting from the settler colonial forces carrying out an ongoing ethnic cleansing pogrom against Palestinians? This mealy-mouthed groveling defense of Zionist apartheid Israel leads me to believe that RFK, Jr. is not an antisemite unless by that people mean that he hates the Palestinians who are a Semitic people. No one else should believe he is either. But just to make sure you know he’s not anti-Israel (that’s what people really mean when they say “antisemitic”), he’s been getting the right-wing Zionists to defend him in this latest flap.
I don’t know that he’s going to be able to recover from this public gaffe, though, as his own sister has officially distanced herself and the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights organization from him and his nutty comments.
But the real problem with Kennedy, Jr’s comments isn’t antisemitism, but the fact that he is an allegedly serious candidate challenging Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination (which he will not get) who is not addressing the real, well-documented issues of racial and economic inequality that contributed to more Black and other marginalized people contracting and dying from COVID-19 in the US. Nor is he raising the very important connected reason that white people began to catch up to them in COVID deaths – which is that white Americans saw any government response to the pandemic that was killing mostly non-white people as an infringement on their rights. That white attitude and the related anti-lockdown, anti-mask and anti-vaccine mandate protests are connected to historic responses of white Americans to government efforts to mitigate racial discrimination in any way. In short, white people’s own racism made them more susceptible to the virus. But more on that later.
First, can we stop believing that there is some genetic marker or determinant for “race?” Because there is not. There is nothing in our genetic makeup that makes us a “Black” or “white” or “Asian” thing called race.
Right around the time these so-called scientific studies about the possible genetic connections between COVID-19 and higher death rates among certain races of people were published, op-eds and articles were also published debunking them because they were based on the junk science of the idea of race as genetically-determined. As one professor of biological anthropology wrote in Sapiens, a digital magazine that focuses on anthropological perspectives:
“For the longest time, Europeans thought that the sun revolved around the Earth. Their culturally attuned eyes saw this as obvious and unquestionably true. Just as astronomers now know that’s not true, nearly all population geneticists know that dividing people into races neither explains nor describes human genetic variation. …Yet this idea of race-as-genetics will not die. For decades, it has been exposed to the sunlight of facts, but, like a vampire, it continues to suck blood—not only surviving but causing harm in how it can twist science to support racist ideologies.”
The article goes on to state about medical research that attempts to tie genetics to race that, “When medical professionals or researchers look for a genetic correlate to “race,” they are falling into a trap: They assume that geographic ancestry, which does indeed matter to genetics, can be conflated with race, which does not. Sure, different human populations living in distinct places may statistically have different genetic traits—such as sickle cell trait, but such variation is about local populations (people in a specific region), not race.”
National Geographic differentiates race from ethnicity by explaining that “Race is defined as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.” The term ethnicities is more broadly defined as “large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.”
Every time we Black radicals talk about systemic racism in this country, we’ll usually get a response from someone saying “Race isn’t real, it’s a social construct.” True enough, but how is it accepted as being genetically determined because RFK, Jr. incorrectly cited a study in his claim that COVID-19 targets certain races of people. And if the argument in his defense is that RFK, Jr. was talking about targeting ethnicities – a word he did use in his comments – how does COVID-19 target ethnicity, which also is not determined by genetics?
Do you see why his comments were wackadoodle now? But the danger in Kennedy’s junk science-based COVID-19 theory is that it ignores the capitalist exploitation of mostly low-wage workers in the US who are predominately Black and Latinx, and the racial biases and rugged individualism of white people that contributed to the high rates of COVID deaths of Black and then white people.
Another Sapiens article repudiating studies claiming a racial/ethnic connections in COVID-19 deaths written by a bioarcheologist in the UK states, “The problem is that ascribing the disparity of COVID-19 impacts on BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) groups as genetic masks the more likely, and more pernicious, causes: systemic inequalities. These are the same systemic inequalities that have prompted outrage and protests over killings of African Americans, including George Floyd, a black man living in Minneapolis who was killed by police on May 25.
Broadly speaking, BAME groups have different experiences of wealth, health care, diet, housing, employment, multigenerational households, and epigenetics compared to majority groups in the U.S. and the U.K. Statistically, they have different experiences with the police, with authorities, and with social services. This is what really deserves to be highlighted and needs to be addressed.
Further, the Mayo Clinic has outlined why Black, Indigenous, Alaska Native and other racial and ethnic minorities in the United States have had higher rates of infection, hospital stays and death caused by the COVID-19 virus than white, non-Hispanic people. They point to the racism that is a part of the culture in the US that plays a part in poor health among affected people, creating or exacerbating medical conditions due to the unrelenting stress of dealing with racial discrimination. And those medical conditions – heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney, and liver disease – have been linked to severe illness with COVID-19.
People’s living conditions and where they lived played a role in the high rates of COVID infection and death among marginalized people, because people in racial and ethnic minority groups might be more likely to live in homes with many family members of various ages. They’re also more likely to live in crowded conditions and heavily populated areas, as opposed to being concentrated in sparsely populated small towns. This made it difficult to stay at a distance from others.
And the prevalence of Black, Latinx, and other marginalized people in professions that were considered “essential” during the pandemic, but were really lower-wage or service jobs that couldn’t be done remotely or that involved public interaction, increased their exposure to COVID-19 virus, resulting in more deaths among those populations. The Mayo Clinic points out that in 2018, about 20% of employed Hispanic and Black men worked in the service industry. This is compared with 13% of either Asian American or non-Hispanic white men. Labor statistics from 2018 found that Black people made up about 36% of workers in nursing. But Black people were only 12% of the overall workforce in 2018. This meant that Black and other marginalized people were more likely to be exposed to people carrying the virus because they could not stay at home during the half-hearted lockdown that so many people revolted against, believing that it was their right to go to bars, get their hair done, and go grocery shopping without any regard for the health and safety of the people who would be serving them, or for their extended families, who they would too often take the virus home to.
And those people are the other reality RFK, Jr.’s comments ignore.
Psychologists at the University of Georgia’s Department of Social Science & Medicine conducted a study that has shown that “When white people in the U.S. were more aware of racial disparities in Covid-19, they were less fearful of Covid-19,” and that there was “…less empathy for people who are vulnerable to Covid-19, and … evidence of reduced support for safety precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.” The study also states that white U.S. Americans who believed COVID-19 racial disparities were a result of the genetic susceptibility of Black people were more likely NOT to adhere to CDC COVID-19 safety recommendations for themselves because they felt that the virus was not a “white people problem.”
So in the US, more Black and other marginalized non-white people got sick and died from COVID-19 because of racist capitalist exploitation, and then more white people started to get sick and die because when they saw that more Black and non-white people were dying, they didn’t care about precautions to keep themselves safe, especially if they believed more Black people died because of our genetics. So they demanded that the economy be opened back up, and flouted mask mandates as an assault on their freedom, which of course only exposed more white people to the virus, causing a rise in infection and death among them.
By 2022, The Washington Post reported that Whites now more likely to die from covid than Blacks: Why the pandemic shifted . They quote Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who noted that officials had to figure out how to connect with “communities who are ideologically opposed to the vaccine” while contending with “the cumulative impact of injustice” on communities of color.
She went on to say, “Think about the fact that everyone who is age 57 and older in this country was born when Jim Crow was legal. What that did was intersect with covid-19, meaning that embodied history is part of this pandemic, too.”
The expansive article explains the shift in COVID death rates among more white people this way:
“The easy explanation is that it reflects the choices of Republicans not to be vaccinated, but the reasons go deeper. The Post interviewed historians and researchers who study the effects of White racial politics and social inequality on health, spoke with relatives and friends of those lost to covid, and compiled data from federal databases and academic studies.
What emerged is a story about how long-standing issues of race and class interacted with the physical and psychological toll of mass illness and death, unprecedented social upheaval, public policies — and public opinion.
Resilience gave way to fatigue. Holes left by rural hospital closures deepened. Medical mistrust and misinformation raged. Skeptics touted debunked alternatives over proven treatments and prevention. Mask use became a victim of social stigma.
Many Republicans decided they would rather roll the dice with their health than follow public health guidance — even when provided by President Donald Trump, who was booed after saying he had been vaccinated and boosted.”
This meant for white Americans that any effort by the government to contain a public health threat that was ravaging communities that did not look like them was seen as government overreach and an infringement on their freedom, just as they had seen all efforts – no matter how marginal – by the federal government to address centuries of racial discrimination in this country. Only this time, the result was the deaths of thousands of white Americans who also did not have to die if this government cared about any of the people in this country and implemented a comprehensive education and material response to keep people safe during the pandemic. These are efforts that were undertaken by the Chinese government to stop the spread of the virus, resulting in a drastically lower death toll than that of the US . China’s comprehensive response to the pandemic, which the US government under neither Trump nor Biden had, is why as many Chinese people haven’t died from the virus as people in the U.S. It has absolutely nothing to do with any alleged genetic immunity of the Chinese.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s comments are not productive or even intelligent contributions to the discourse we need to have regarding this government’s lack of a coordinated and humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Peddling the “genetic predisposition to COVID-19” trope rather than connecting those needless excess deaths to their well-documented causes, capitalism and racism, is no better than the unscientific and dangerous response to the pandemic that we got from Trump or Biden.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. ignoring those systemic issues does not bode well for him having any answer for addressing these issues and everything else they impact in our lives if he were to win the nomination and ultimately the presidency. And we cannot afford any more of that, no matter how popular he is among the deluded section of the Latte Left in this country.