Friday, May 15, 2020

The Color of COVID: Race, Class & the Coronavirus

I was sixteen when my father died. I could scarcely remember his face, since I was 10 years old when last I saw him. That’s when I left Jamaica to attend school in Norway. Yet, while his visage was a sunny-somewhat-mythologized blur, the memory of the day he died remains stark…

I was thinking, in class at Kvinnherad videregående skole, about how my little sister Nilla Brit had annoyed-the-faen out of me the entire morning.

Thinking about testing the teeny bit of sexual angst that had morphed into a full blown hormonal itch on Per Gunnar, the shy 6’3” 15-year-old redhead with the incandescent irises, bullet nose, and waiting-to-exhale gait who everyone called “spesiell” because of his tendency towards all things religious.

Thinking about last weekend’s Russefeiring and trying out the hangover cure bestevenn min had recommended.

Thinking about the Russe trip to Copenhagen and wondering in vain if my Norwegian-Saami mother would loosen her loving yet overprotective grip and allow me to go.

Thinking how my functionally illiterate highly perceptive adoring fundamentalist Pentecostal Jamaican mother would be disappointed in the me that I had evolved since she saw me two years prior.

Thinking about where to place the guilt of not calling her for the last three Sundays out of a genuine fear that I would out myself during the question and answer portion of our weekly samtaler.

I was not thinking about my father, who had fallen into a diabetic coma three days prior. I was not thinking about how the years of destitution in Jamaica had forced my father to repeatedly choose between his insulin and feeding his three daughters. I was not thinking about his fear of going to the emergency room when he began feeling the cold clammy delirium, the accelerating heartbeat and blurred vision that accompanies rapidly decreasing blood sugar.

I was not thinking about the fear that gripped my father at being deported because he had overstayed his non-immigrant B1 visa and had been working illegally in the country for the last 5+ years. Nor was I thinking of the fear my father had even during the Reagan Amnesty years, when he could have sought asylum based on his status as a political refugee who had been shot multiple times because he was audacious, and desperate enough to seek employment in a Peoples National Party area of Kingston, while living in a Jamaica Labour Party garrisoned slum.

I was not thinking that he had gone from a racialized class system in postcolonial Jamaica, where his color, class, and lack of education defined his marginalization; to one in Queens NY, where race, class, and national identity had structured his position on the margins, where his fear materialized into a legitimate barrier to him seeking the medical help he desperately needed.

I was not thinking how these systems of oppression, that existed in both locales, had conspired to limit his access to adequate healthcare, healthy foods, and clean air; all but ensuring that diabetes would become trauma reproduced across multiple generations, affecting every member of his, and now my extended family.

I also did not think he would die at 45, within three days of falling into a diabetic coma, alone in a hospital bed, in Queens NY.

Unlike my often-mythologized memory of my father’s face — the data is crystal and irrefutable — the novel coronavirus has exposed how little things have changed for people of color, the working class and the poor in this country. And, for all the claims that the novel coronavirus is an equalizing force, COVID-19 has, and is, taking a disproportionate toll on non-white bodies.

Centuries of segregation in densely populated areas, lack of access to quality healthcare, clean air and drinking water, nutritious food choices, overrepresentation in frontline/first responder/essential jobs — where they are not able to capitulate to the fight-or-flight instinct seen across the country as those that can, do flee the epicenters of disease — have made the bodies of ethnically and racially-minoritized peoples more vulnerable to the pathogens pathway.

The coronavirus has exposed our reticence to reckon with, and honestly confront systems of oppression that have weaponized social categories of race, class, and national origin. This reticence has repeatedly positioned people of color, the poor, and working classes at the gaping mouth of diseases with insatiable appetites for vulnerability. This was the case in 1918, it was the case for my father in 1993, and it is the case today.

Yet, it does not have to be going forward…

Coming soon: The Color of COVID Part Two: Making social equity central to combating coronavirus 

Top photo: Norwegian high school seniors Russefeiring in traditional red overalls.
Bottom photo: A partisan warning written on a wall in Kingston Jamaica during the election wars of 1980.

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Nicole “Nicky” Hylton-Patterson joined the ANCA family as the Director for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative (ADI) in December 2019. Her journey from St. Catherine, Jamaica to Saranac Lake, NY is one marked by lengthy sojourns in Trondheim, Norway, Elmira NY, and Tempe, AZ.  A relentless advocate for justice and equity, Nicky brings 20+ years of experience as a community organizer, educator, activist scholar and diversity & inclusion subject matter expert and practitioner to the role.

10 Responses

  1. Ed M says:

    Powerful. Thanks I for sharing.
    Somethings certainly have not changed. Except perhaps the magnitude of COVID losses among marginalized people of color.
    2020 hindsight takes on a new meaning.
    We should be better than this, and must reimagine how we can be going forward.

  2. Lanse Stover says:

    Beautifully written, and heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing your experience and your knowledge of the role that race plays in the US health-care system – and the underlying social forces that disadvantage the health of people of color. My hope is that the drastic imbalance of illness and death from COVID-19 on these populations will force major changes in our policies and attitudes. Thank you for adding your eloquent voice to that discussion; we are lucky you are here in the North Country to help us move forward.

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    Nicky, This is right on truth speaking to power & speaking to all of us!
    Thank you! Racism in all its forms is so entrenched in our neighborhoods, our beloved Adirondack Park, our state, our nation, our world. We all have a lot of work to do to, as Dr King said, “get to the promised land.”

  4. JohnL says:

    Agree 100% Pufferguns. What little I could understand about this very strange, confusing epistle, certainly wasn’t good. Going downhill lately with Almanac posts.
    P.S. How does Per Gunnar fit into the Adirondack narrative? Just curious.

  5. Boreas says:


    I for one did not find the article offensive, and I have paid all the dues you mention, so “every American….” is not the case. Indeed, I would suggest your take on the issue is in the minority.

    But more importantly, I find your comment on the virus “targeting” non-whites very telling. As you surely know, any human virus only targets its next host – a human cell. It doesn’t perform a racial and health inventory of a host before it attacks. But some humans certainly are more at risk once infected due to their underlying health AND their ability to access healthcare as you say.

    What viruses expose are inadequacies of healthcare and inequalities in ANY society. It doesn’t matter what country you live in – viruses will always expose our strengths and weaknesses – and our darker angels. Societies can choose to address these inequalities, or ignore them. It is up to us to make a better society, not a virus. In order to do that, we need to minimize tribalism and develop the ability to view the world through eyes other than our own. Unfortunately, this is not yet a universal human instinct.

  6. Pufferguns says:

    John L . The names of my cats after the original way cereal was made with puffer guns.

  7. Charlie S says:

    “have made the bodies of ethnically and racially-minoritized peoples more vulnerable to the pathogens pathway.”

    I don’t believe in flukes of nature, and there are no coincidences. The intelligence world that exist outside of just about everyone’s realm has a sinister nature, much of which we can never know nor would many of us believe. This I do know! We are, and have been, in ugly times. Ugly politically more than all things else, which is not good because most every aspect of our lives are affected due to politics. You name it!

    There is such a thing as hybrid warfare. Now i’m the last person that would spread falsehoods by way of propagandizing, but if you look at our history, what we’ve already done, and how so arrogant and ugly many of those in power now are, in this country especially, you have to know, “they are capable of anything!” Just look at the recent Iraq War! All of those innocent little boys and girls and their mommies and daddies killed or maimed, or loss of their limbs, due to our bombs, bombs made in the USA. A country we invaded for no darned good reason whatsoever other than political motives, and was supported by many Americans who ought to be ashamed of themselves for so doing, but which I doubt are. We’re still paying for that war by the way though you don’t hear much about it anymore.

    I’m not implying anything other than we just have not really been on the right course for a very long time. Not morally, not socially, not politically, not environmentally………..! Surely everyone would agree on these. I believe in karma, that what goes around comes around. We have been so divisive which our current leadership has up-ticked 75% and continues to do unabated, even through this horrible pandemic. Yet look at the support he has! It boggles the mind! I’m not going political as much as I am conveying truth! I can go on but my point is made clear I’m thinking.

    Back to where this was going! When I say “There is such a thing as hybrid warfare” I mean we have the capability to create Hybrid warfare, meaning bacteriological and biological warfare, where they can pinpoint and kill by race, by creed, by color, by age group, by the area of their origin…using their DNA’s..they can do that right now! Has anybody heard?

    I’m not implying anything by what I say I’m just saying. At the very least we have not been good stewards of this our only home, and there are some (many) who support the ugly which has been coming out of those people in power now which has many of us wondering “What’s in their Koolaide?” Our leaders have us very divided and division is the last place we want to be if we wish to leave anything for future generations. Unless of course you just don’t care about future generations!

    There’s more to this but I hope I made a little sense here as I am bothered by so much….which is what induced the above.

    • JohnL says:

      Wow Charlie. Your posts are getting longer. Just for the record, Charlie, the increase in class warfare and division started in Jan 2009 and lasted until the present under the previous President. From his “if I had a son, he’s look like Trayvon” to “hands up don’t shoot” to “the Boston Police/Harvard professor issue’ to using the IRS/FBI/CIA/etc to spy on a campaign and later a Presidency, I think you’d have to admit, if you’re honest with yourself’, that the previous President, as you described it, is the one who ‘up ticked’ the divisiveness thru his actions. You can have the last word Charlie. I won’t be responding.

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