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COVID-19 Reveals American Vulnerability to “Ambiguous” Medical Racism

America's response to the coronavirus is deja vu all over again.

Last week, Black Twitter was set ablaze with when Dr. Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at Cochin Hospital in Paris, France, talked about testing a treatment used for tuberculous as a possible option for COVID-19, “If I could be provocative, should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, treatment or intensive care,” he continued. “We try things because we know that they are highly exposed and they don’t protect themselves.”

This is nothing new. Not in any way, shape or form is there anything unique about testing pharmaceuticals on people of color. Once upon a time, and seemingly into the foreseeable future, drug trials have and will be a contemporary reality.

The historic precedent had been set long before birth control drug trials were undertaken in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, or AZT drug trials took place in the Philippines in the late 80s, and long before the outrageously sadistic Tuskegee Experiments. 

It all goes to humanity. That is to say, who has it, and who does not.

Mira probably still believes he didn’t say anything wrong, though he did apologize. However, the Eurocentric worldview isn’t unique. He continued by further muddying his point.

“A bit like as if it is done elsewhere for some studies on Aids. In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.” 

National Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Dr. John Fauci pointed out how socioeconomic disparities are contributing to higher death tolls among African-Americans but stopped short of saying Black folks are infected at a higher rate than the general population.

“And the reason I want to bring it up, because I couldn’t help reflecting on how sometimes when you’re in the middle of a crisis, like we are now with the coronavirus, it really does have, ultimately, shine a very bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society,” Fauci said.

There are cultural reasons why Dr. Mira thought that it was fine to so flippantly cast Africa in the role of international testing ground. Indeed, there are reasons why he believes it would be unacceptable to produce results in a “western” nation, like Australia or in Europe. There are most certainly reasons why the good doctor believed that Africans, as a general rule, had less access to rudimentary common sense necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19.  

Days ago, Dr. Mira expressed his deepest apologies for what he described as his “clumsy” choice of words, and though many voices throughout the African Diaspora rose up in unison to denounce Dr. Mira’s words, his hubris and ignorance is notwithstanding nor unique. 

Recently, Vice President Mike Pence told a news briefing that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine will be used in a 3,000-person study at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit to test its effectiveness in treating novel coronavirus patients.

As of Monday, Henry Ford Hospital reported over 700 workers have contracted the disease.

Additionally, Detroit is suffering from the effects of the pandemic at a greater rate than the rest of the state of Michigan as 25 percent of COVID-19 patients and deaths are in a city that only holds around 7 percent of the state population.

While making up only 13% of Michigan’s population, African-Americans account for over a third of COVID-19 infections and 40% of coronavirus-related deaths.

So, on the surface at least, it appears this largely Black municipality is a prime location for any COVID drug trials. But students of history have every right to be weary.

Long ago, western medicine collectively decided that it’s better to experiment upon the disenfranchised, those who’re already marginalized and whose rights weren’t ratified, and thus weren’t respected by the contemporary mainstream.  

The brutal legacy of Dr. James Marion Sims, the so-called Father of Modern Gynecology and apparent sadist who performed horrible experiments on Black women, without the use of anesthesia of the day, has only recently drawn society’s scorn two years ago on April 17, 2018, when a statue bearing his likeness was removed from Central Park. This speaks to the relative newness of the term medical racism. 

Black folks become the chosen American guinea pigs whenever governmental bureaucracy that bends toward racist notions is introduced to health care, deciding who gets it, who should pay the most for it, and upon who’s back will they heap the burdenous negative side effects as to its administering. 

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