What part have politics and systemic racism played in the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.?

Bill Newman 2
William I. Newman, Ph.D.; October 17, 2020

During my interview conducted by Irwin Block, I made a number of predictions emerging from what was known scientifically at that time about the COVID-19 virus. My predictions about the course of the disease proved to be eerily correct. Scientific investigators continue to learn about this novel coronavirus and how it can have much broader impacts than simple respiratory ones and how it can dramatically affect the lives of all demographic groupings, particularly senior citizens who, if infected, are 80+ times more likely to perish than young people 18-35 who contract the disease. However, that does not mean that younger people are not adversely impacted, and increasingly clinicians sometimes identify life-threatening effects.

Science can only do so much. What I couldn’t do at the time of the interview was predict how the political forum in the United States would intervene and interfere with establishing an effective way of countering the course of this disease and the misery that it has caused, infecting over 6 million Americans and killing nearly 200,000 (the exact number is not known since significant numbers have died at home rather than come for treatment in overly burdened hospitals). With but 4% of the globe’s population, the US ironically allowed itself to become “number 1” with 23% of those infected globally. How could that be? The opinions I express below are my own but supported by a substantial amount of evidence.

In order to understand this paradox, there are a number of features about the evolution of American political and other institutions—in contrast with Canada—and observe how these seemingly bizarre developments came to be. Growing up in Canada and having a full dose of American history, together with British, French, and Canadian history, in high school in coming to grips with Canada’s evolution, I learned “on paper” many aspects of the America experience, but still did not fully grasp it. Having a full year of American history at the University of Alberta—I suspected at that time that I might have to go to the US to fulfill my educational objectives—I had what was a balanced introduction to America. In reality, it took nearly five decades living in this country—I have remained a Canadian citizen—to come to terms with what has taken place in the United States, in marked contrast with Canada. I will proceed by presenting some “facts” that likely are not well known to Canadians or, for that matter, many Americans.

First, the United States is not a representative democracy but is formally a Republic. Basically, it has two parties, the Democrats and Republicans, whose history differs substantially from Canada’s multi-party system. While the legislative branch or Congress has a lower house, the House of Representatives where each member is selected in proportion to his/her district every two years with elections held every two years, it also has an upper house, the Senate where each member serves for six years and is up for re-election every third election cycle. However, every state has exactly the same representation, two Senators per state. Thus, California with 40 million people, larger than Canada’s 36 million, has the same representation as the state of Wyoming whose population is approximately one half that of Calgary, Alberta. This explains a remarkable event in contemporary history where 52 Senators voted against convicting President Trump of the impeachment charges brought by the House of Representatives. Those 52 Senators, all but one being Republican, come from states that represent only 8% of the population of the country. The overwhelming majority of Americans—92% overall—live in states with Democratic Senate representation. A majority vote in the Senate can be dramatically different from the weight of popular opinion.

Second, the President is not elected directly, nor does s/he necessarily have anything to do with the dominant party in the Congress, but by the “Electoral College,” another fossil relic of post-American Revolutionary times. Its composition was established more than two centuries ago and bears virtually no resemblance to America’s population distribution today. Every state has its own rules—one difference between the US and Canada is that “states’ rights” are extraordinary. While Canada’s Fathers of Confederation borrowed the American Federal system rather than adopt the British unitary system, the British North America Act created provinces to parallel to some degree American states. At the time of the American Revolution, the 13 states behaved more like independent countries, bonded together solely in their conflict with Great Britain. It took more than a decade for the Americans to hammer out a Constitution which was repeatedly amended, with the first 10 coming to be called the United States Bill of Rights which was ratified in 1791. This was a remarkable and important document for its time but, albeit amended 27 times, arguably remain incomplete. (For example, while women received the right to vote in 1919 in the US, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified by the necessary majority of states, and civil liberties in the US are far fewer than those embodied in Canada’s Charter of Rights.)

Thus, every state can organize its participation in Federal elections in different ways. We are seeing this in the current Presidential and Congressional elections in terms of the issues relating to voting in person rather than voting by mail. Further, the rules for selecting Electors vary from state-to-state and, in some states, “winner take all” rules prevail. Thus, a state with a disproportionately large number of Electors, thanks to the rules that pertained at the time that state was founded or following later amendment, could have all of their electors determined by the party receiving the greatest number of votes and not in proportion to the votes cast. This facet of the US system was exploited by the Republicans, with help from Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, among other social media, and described in detail in the documentary film “The Great Hack” available on Netflix. These players identified four “swing states” in the mid-west where a 3% shift in popular opinion would result in each of those states’ electors flipping from Democratic to Republican, and this was accomplished by data-mining and targeted internet advertising. (This scheme also worked in the UK with “Brexit.”) The Russians also had a substantial role, which was welcomed during the campaign by Trump. An added complication in selecting their President arises from the process wherein the two parties select their presidential nominees in annual conventions, and in the months leading up to the normally week-long event. It is evident that money plays a disproportionate role here, as well as in politics in general, and it is rarely the case that the convention, following seemingly interminable debates and posturing, select the best-qualified candidate. (Ironically, many Americans when faced by two major party candidates who do not fit closely with their objectives will often choose not to vote or vote for an unelectable third or fourth party candidate, rather than the “lesser of two evils.”)

Neither the Legislative nor Executive branches are truly democratic. While the Americans were the first to experiment with creating a democracy, nearly two and a half centuries have now passed and other countries have invented more effective and representative legislative bodies, particularly federal Parliaments, and have separated the role of the titular head of the country (the Queen or Governor General for Canada) and the individual who is the legislative leader or Prime Minister. Moreover, we witnessed how the US Senate could intervene to prevent the selection of Supreme Court Associate Justices. Constitutionally, that choice is supposed to be made by the President with the “advice and consent of the Senate.” This fails when the Senate is controlled by a different party, thereby rendering the representation in the Judiciary problematic. (Canada, to be sure, has its own problems in government, but they pale in comparison with those in the United States, at least at this time.)

Third, while I focused on the three branches of American government, demographics in the US have played and continue to play a profound role. In order to bring together the 13 colonies in seeking independence from Britain under George III, the northern states-to-be accepted a profound demand from the southern states—that slavery be accepted and that the ownership of humans would be accepted. The first captured Africans were brought to the US in 1619, four centuries ago; meanwhile, the America’s westward expansion took a terrible toll on its indigenous peoples. In the mid to late 18th century, slavery had not established itself in Canada and there were enlightened movements in Britain and in France seeking its elimination.

The roots of (European) religious observance in America is often associated with the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in December 1620, which is associated today with the establishment of the American Thanksgiving Holiday. The Puritans arrived two years later in Boston and were followed by many other Christian sects fleeing religious persecution. The Puritans, sought to “purify” the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices, and both the Pilgrims and the Puritans brought with them a Calvinist belief in “predestination.” They held that some individual were born into an “elect” group who would be successful in life and be “saved,” while the non-elected were condemned to an afterlife in hell. Many adherents of Calvinist theology at the time believed that people of color and non-Christians were not among the elect.

These religious beliefs were quite common among the first European settlers in America, and has had a lasting influence on American society. It also made it “morally acceptable” among the settlers to possess slaves. Some of these ideas persist in the United States, facilitating the preservation of a largely white class of individuals who have maintained a sense of entitlement and privilege, while regarding other groups including racial and ethnic minorities plus working poor whites lacking those advantages as being inferior. Hence, opposition to universal education, health care, voting rights, and the emergence of an  us versus them” attitude became a fixture American life that we witness today.

Since the American south’s economy was agrarian from the earliest days of colonization and, lacking the advent of mechanization, the south’s white population would become impoverished without black slave labor. There are hints in the historical record that fear of progressive change in Britain was a primary motivator for the southern states to sever their ties from the Crown fearing slavery’s abolition. As America grew, many of the newly emergent states also sought to preserve slavery, and the resulting “Missouri Compromise” and other such arrangements, allowed slavery to spread throughout the country. In contrast, the Great Reform Act of 1832 in Great Britain formally brought an end to slavery in the British Empire including Canada.

The treatment of native Americans as well as of Chinese brought to work on the Union Pacific Railroad are added evidence of racial injustice. The Dred-Scott Supreme Court case of 1857 preserved slavery and prevented citizenship being given to African Americans. The Civil War took began in April 1861 against this backdrop. While some Southerners today allege that they were simply trying to maintain “States’ Rights,” the reality is that each of the states joining the Confederacy declared in their Articles of Secession that they sought to do so in order to preserve their “Economic Foundation built upon the Institution of Slavery.” There were other issues separating the various states, but the economic ones were the sine qua non for secession. (Perhaps there is a lesson here for Canada, as Alberta needs to transition to an economy no longer dominated by fossil fuel extraction. Alberta could possibly benefit from federal encouragement and assistance in making that change, and a toning down of the rhetoric.) Fleeing the antebellum south, escaped slaves could not find refuge in the north, and frequently made their way via the “Underground Railroad” to Canada where they could be free. Long after the Civil War came to an end, the US Constitution saw the introduction of the 13th and 14th Amendments eliminating slavery, giving citizenship to all natural born or naturalized males, including African Americans, and ultimately (at least for men) the right to vote. However, countless obstacles were thrown in the path of a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive society during the Reconstruction era, the passage of “Jim Crow” laws, and other impediments to racial equality.

You may be asking why I spent so much time describing the origins of slavery and racial injustice in the United States. A moment’s reflection in light of the current news events makes clear that much of this history is coming back to haunt America. The United States demographically is very different from what it was in the 1950’s, the decade that nominally corresponds to the theme underlying the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Those years saw substantial social unrest and preceded the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Moreover, America was unequivocally segregated with the “separate-but-equal” doctrine affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1896 prevailing, but declared unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 but taking many years to implement in a process that is far from complete. (As a child visiting a city near Minneapolis in 1959, I remember seeing some “colored” water fountains and washrooms.)

Today, approximately 25% of America’s population is Hispanic American (“brown”), African American (“black”), or Asian American with a vanishingly small number of native Americans (what we Canadians refer to as First Nations People). (I find the use of “colors” to describe Americans of different backgrounds completely dehumanizing, a feature not lost on those who helped create that lexical construction.) The election of President Obama shook many evidently marginalized, especially poorly educated and working class white Americans. Polarization was beginning to take place closely tied to race, education, and enforcement of the law. Donald Trump appealed in 2016 to disaffected white voters with his rhetoric and, with the intervention of outside forces described above combined with a poorly executed campaign by his opponent Hillary Clinton. He was selected by the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote. The current situation is rooted in the divides that are present and terms like “critical race theory” and “white fragility” have emerged. The former associated with the perception that social problems are the outcome of societal cultures and cultural assumptions.

Thus, the typical view seen in 19th century American literature of blacks as being illiterate, unintelligent, and lazy individuals permeates much of America and remains a hallmark of white supremacy. This is further complicated by the prevailing culture being white and male, having its origins in Western Europe, in contrast with all others. If you weren’t white (and male and Christian and straight), you were not part of the mainstream. Racial divisions plus continued misogyny and discrimination toward LGBTQ are all part of this. So, while “minorities” didn’t fit into the mainstream, the “melting pot” could not accommodate a population with increasing numbers of individuals who didn’t look like, talk like you, work like you, and so on. It was an implicit rejection of those who don’t fit into your comfort zone; stereotypes and implicit bias prevailed and progress was stymied. (How refreshing, in contrast, is the Canadian notion of a “cultural mosaic” where all individuals are accepted as being able to participate and contribute to society.) Another barrier, paralleling discrimination against non-white society, is the emergence of what has become known as “white fragility.”

Many whites will argue that they are not racist, that they earned by virtue of their hard work and drive and education everything that they possess. However, this attitude completely overlooks the question that they typically fail to ask: would I have reached the same level of success and so on if I had to compete against others who were excluded from consideration, and so on. For many such disaffected whites, the re-election of Donald Trump is like a “last hurrah” in the face of continuing demographic change.We see this reflection of institutional, legal, and racial issues in almost all aspects of contemporary American life. When a white counters a demonstrator carrying a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter” with one that reads “All Lives Matter,” s/he is overlooking the FBI-documented fact that a black male teen ages or young adult in police custody is 20 times more likely to die than a like-aged white male. While all lives matter, we must focus on answering the question why such a disparity exists, amidst a seemingly steady flow of police killings of African Americans, while a 17-year old white killer has become the poster-child of the right. Finally, then, what does the confluence of America’s government, institutions, history, and racial divide have to do with the COVID-19 crisis.

I will move toward closure by pointing out two aspects of human society that play a role. These emerge from the psychological phenomena known as “confirmation bias” and “cognitive dissonance.” All of us are products of our upbringing and the nature of the society in which we were raised. That guarantees that there is a systematic difference in the attitudes of the races conditioned by their different experience and beliefs. Confirmation bias refers to our singling out in our minds events that fit our beliefs while discarding others that do not. (Consider the individual who reviews their newspaper’s published horoscope, recalling those instances where the vague incongruous “predictions” seem to fit, but ignoring the overwhelming majority.) Cognitive dissonance refers to discomfort that arises when evidence that does not conform with our mindset is set aside. Taken together, these present powerful psychological forces against change. This is a fundamental element in psychological trait theory and its five-factor model among which is “openness to experience”: in essence, while describing a spectrum of human personality, it demonstrates that there are individuals who are extremely resistant to change at one end of the scale and individuals who are very open to change if presented compelling evidence.

The bottom line, in practical terms, is that fear can energize resistance in a significant portion of the population to change in our way of life, economy, and so on. History is full of examples of demagogues who have systematically exploited this tactic. An additional dimension to this phenomenon arises from an aspect of human referred to as the “Dunning-Kruger” effect, named after two Cornell psychologists who demonstrated an inverse correlation between the strength of an individual’s opinion and the degree of knowledge s/he has of the topic. The less one knows about a topic, the more likely that individual will favor his opinion. When you couple this with American’s sense of individualism, the result can be explosive, particularly in light of the psychological forces against change. We have had no experience with a pandemic in a century. Consequently, many Americans regard it as being a hoax, a conviction reaffirmed in an emphatic and soothing way by their President, a man whom they perceive will preserve the status-quo that they saw much earlier in their lives or those of their parents. The other aspect arises from their discomfort with the changes they have witnessed in their lifetimes, with the promise of much more to come. They want to keep things the way they were, a mode of life gave them a sense of entitlement and privilege without having to face a much more competitive work and cultural environment where others, whom they subliminally believe are inferior, have the potential to take away their jobs.

Fear is a very powerful emotion, and Donald Trump is presenting a vision of their neighborhoods being opened to an influx of “black and brown people” should they allow Joe Biden to be elected. The ultimate irony is that Mr. Trump, having wielded the power of the Presidency for nearly four years, was the architect of much that has happened in this country. At this point in time, 2% of Americans have contracted the coronavirus, with a horrifying disproportionate effect upon black and brown people and the poor—the kind of people who provide the services that you need. The President’s base fears the economic impacts—30 million unemployed—and are prepared, in their ill-considered thinking, to accept the loss of life before a safe and effective vaccine emerges as being acceptable as long as the style of life to which they have become accustomed can be maintained. They forget about its consequences to others, who simply don’t figure prominently in their world, given their sense of marginalization.

The degree of corruption that we are witnessing is without parallel in our lifetimes, far surpassing the excesses of Richard Nixon and his accomplices. (I arrived in the US to continue my graduate education the year the Watergate break-in took place.) The current Balkanization of American society builds on the racial injustice (and to a lesser degree gender and other forms of injustice) that have never been addressed in a moral and ethical fashion. The COVID-19 and the overlooked climate crisis—which is paralyzing California where I make my home—is symptomatic of these ills. I earnestly hope that Americans will appreciate these facts supported by unassailable evidence, and exercise a choice consistent with addressing the public health, environmental, and social crises which are present so that this country can achieve its promise.

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