Around the world, the war against COVID-19 has created unexpected opportunities for governments to repress their critics. In March, Hong Kong police used coronavirus-related restrictions on public gatherings to disperse dissidents protesting against the encroachment of Chinese authority upon the island. That same month, Palestinian citizens suffered increased violence by Israeli forces. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte told authorities who felt threatened by lockdown violators to simply “shoot them dead”; 120,000 people were subsequently detained. In Kenya, at least 20 deaths related to police misconduct during the lockdown are being investigated, in addition to systematic extrajudicial executions in poor neighborhoods.
This situation is not new, as evidenced by the Great Plague of 1348, which killed approximately a third of the European population. Women, Jews, and outcasts were falsely accused of spreading the disease and were discriminated against. We can see parallels in 2020’s violence against the poor, the elderly, and those from racial minorities. Those groups also happen to be the ones at increased risk of severe complications from COVID-19.
But how do we really know who experiences this double discrimination—stemming from the disease itself and from society—if statistics are kept hidden from the public? That is exactly what is happening, as governments work to cover up the pandemic’s true toll. Week after week, we are bombarded with statistics that hide as much as they reveal. One underestimated and devastating side effect of the virus, it turns out, is COVID blindness: a withholding of accurate information, which has obscured the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable communities and the resurgence of institutional violence that has accompanied it.
Epidemics carefully select their targets. In 1991, a wave of tuberculosis in New York City disproportionately affected the homeless. In the 1980s, HIV decimated the gay population. In 1918, the Spanish flu—which infected a third of the world’s population and caused at least 17 million deaths, though some estimates place the figure closer to 50 million1—first killed rank-and-file soldiers already exhausted by World War I, before traveling worldwide along commercial and migrant routes. One would think that efforts to fight epidemics would focus on minimizing the risk to the most affected populations. But recent experience proves otherwise.
Many governments have tried to hide their most upsetting COVID figures—the number of cases and the number of deaths. These statistics are not only scientific but political: they represent the failure of governments to contain the virus. So perhaps it is not surprising that these numbers are contested. In Spain, significant discrepancies appear between the official Department of Health statistics and those published by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística, the official agency that collects data about Spanish society. According to critics, some discrepancies are the result of deliberate delays in the transmission of the data by government officials, which make some provinces look better than others.2 In late April, the Spanish government tried to cite declining numbers of infections to end a particularly harsh lockdown—but it turned out these favorable figures excluded asymptomatic cases.3
Unsurprisingly, older people, who are more affected by the virus, have found themselves at the very heart of this battle over statistics. In France’s retirement homes, the increase in the mortality rate in March was twice as high as in hospitals and homes (21.3 percent versus 10.9 percent). But Santé Publique France did not include statistics on mortality in nursing homes in its daily report until March 26. The government claimed that nursing-home statistics weren’t as reliable as those from hospitals—but later, confusingly, contradicted itself by citing them in official press releases. For almost a whole month, millions of French people simply did not have the right figures—and they didn’t know what they didn’t know. This is all the more surprising given that in 26 countries, nursing-home residents represent, on average, 47 percent of all COVID-19 deaths.4
The fight for accurate numbers is part of a more general fight for knowledge of the disease. As World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on March 16, 2020, “The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate. You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.” But testing is not efficient if it remains out of reach for the majority of the population. The access to free, fast, and accurate testing remains a class privilege. And the head of the WHO is not beyond reproach: after a trip to Beijing in late January, he affirmed “China’s speed, China’s scale, and China’s efficiency” in fighting the virus, a statement that was blind to China’s policy against systematic testing, public information, and whistleblowers, which helped the virus multiply.
Week after week, we are bombarded with statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
One of the most salient features of the global COVID crackdown is the way it has exacerbated police violence, often along racial lines. In February 2020, before London went into lockdown, 9,063 Black people were stopped and searched by the city’s police, in comparison to 9,176 white people. Those numbers look fairly even, until you take into account the fact that Blacks represent only 11.5 percent of the city’s population.5 During lockdown, from March to April 2020, police searches of Blacks surged in comparison to those of whites. In April, 11,999 searches of Black people were conducted, versus 11,516 of white people. The situation came back to “normal” in May, at the end of the lockdown. These figures, official statistics published by the London police, clearly demonstrate the intensification of police discrimination during the lockdown.
In many countries, however, a detailed accounting of police violence by race or ethnic group doesn’t exist, and the issue surfaces only when a particularly frightening individual case captures the public imagination. In March 2020, a policeman in the Indian state of Assam beat three indigenous women for violating the lockdown by venturing out to collect firewood and vegetables. The policeman was caught on tape, and the video went viral. In France, many videos capturing police violence have circulated on the internet since the beginning of the confinement. One such video, recorded on March 23, a week after the beginning of the lockdown, shows a 23-year-old man called Yassim with his face swollen. “They smashed my head twice against the wall and hurt my head with a Flash Ball rifle butt,” he says. According to Assa Traoré, an antiracist activist whose brother was killed by the police in 2016, “With the lockdown, our neighborhoods have become attraction parks for the cops.” In most cases, however, no video is available, and real numbers won’t find their way into the official statistics. In France, Italy, and Spain, statistics based on race are simply not allowed. This official colorblindness conceals racist behavior and exacerbates collective ignorance.
In France, collecting census information about race has been forbidden since 1978. As a result, activists and scholars lack the proper tools to sharpen their analyses and make their voices heard. The issue has spawned heated debates, but since the situation has not changed, we still need to look elsewhere to find information that proves discrimination. One strategy would be to use “geographical tricks.” Here, geography is used to signify race: one talks of place of birth or residency, noting cities where the majority of the population is Black, for instance.
In Seine-Saint-Denis, a working-class area northeast of Paris, where the majority of the population is Arab and Black, the mortality rate between March 1 and April 30 was 124 percent higher than it had been during the same period in 2019.6 In France as a whole, the increase was, on average, 26 percent. Smaller apartments, seclusion, limited financial resources, and less access to basic necessities such as health care, PCR tests, and food probably explain why the coronavirus was able to kill so many more people in Seine-Saint-Denis.
In addition to its increased death toll from the virus, the area also experienced an increase in police repression. According to an Amnesty International report, titled “Policing the Pandemic,” in Seine-Saint-Denis the number of fines for not respecting the lockdown was three times higher than in the rest of the country, even though, “according to local authorities, respect of lockdown measures in Seine-Saint-Denis was comparable to other departments in France.” Unfortunately, as long as we don’t have a way to measure racism directly, colorblind sociologists will always claim that the only important factors are social and economic ones, and not racial ones—as if being Black or white didn’t also entail, unfortunately, strong differences in economic and material conditions of existence.
However, despite increased repression, the manipulation of statistics, and rampant racism in the scientific community, forms of resistance break through. They are all the more admirable given the current global context, in which even the closing of borders appears to be a gesture of humanitarian prudence based on scientific facts, rather than irrational chauvinism.
After Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd on May 25, an international wave of antiracist protests traveled around the world, fueled by the experience in the previous months of increased but also hidden repression. Is this global outcry only a coincidence, or is it a reaction to the more overt racism that came along with lockdown? Floyd’s autopsy showed he was positive for COVID-19. We know that, as a 46-year-old Black man, he was more likely to experience serious complications. From April 13 to September 15, 2020, 97.7 Black Americans and 81.9 Indigenous Americans out of 100,000 inhabitants died of COVID, compared to 46.6 white Americans.7 Of course, the epidemic doesn’t explain George Floyd’s tragic fate. But the COVID lockdowns, which have encouraged a sense of impunity among police forces, have proven to be a handy excuse for renewed repression, which in turn triggers protest.
In France, in the wake of Floyd’s death, and in spite of government attempts to cancel demonstrations, antiracist protests attracted thousands to the Eiffel Tower and the US embassy. They were not only the largest rallies since the beginning of the lockdown, but also the largest antiracist gatherings in decades. And they spread beyond Paris: in Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, and Lille, thousands of people took to the streets. Many demonstrators took a knee, as Martin Luther King Jr. did in 1965, to pray with civil-rights activists, as well as raised their fists in solidarity with the Black Power movement. The COVID lockdowns, paradoxically, have raised awareness of racial issues and provoked defiance against the state apparatus, even as protesters have maintained respect for sanitary measures.
On April 10, Collin Khosa, a 40-year-old Black South African man, was killed by four soldiers after a dispute over his alleged drinking of beer in front of his home in Alexandra township during a coronavirus lockdown. His death might have gone unnoticed, had the uprisings in America in the wake of Floyd’s death not shed light on persistent structural racism far beyond Minneapolis. In South Africa, racial discrimination is so acute that the incident reverberated throughout the nation’s courts: during April and May, 403 lawsuits were filed against police and soldiers—271 for assault and 9 for murder.
One can only hope that these antiracist demonstrations will contribute to the end of COVID blindness and give way to stronger social movements. After all, there are more devastating consequences of the pandemic and the lockdown still to come, especially a global economic crisis that is already affecting vulnerable segments of the working class. This optimistic view of the protests may turn out to be accurate, but there is still a long way to go. It is difficult to know exactly how and when the economic downturn will strike and where resistances will appear. Once again, battles over numbers, with all their partial truths and contradictions, will obscure the situation. Powerful social struggles will be needed to steer our current reality toward a new, egalitarian society, and to avoid the rise of the far-right forces in the midst of the crisis.
- Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 12, no. 1 (2006); Peter Spreeuwenberg, Madelon Kroneman, and John Paget, “Reassessing the Global Mortality Burden of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” American Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 187, no. 12 (2018). ↩
- Carlos Cuesta, “Cataluña oculta 500 muertos por Covid en dos semanas para figurar mejor en las estadísticas oficiales,” OK Diario, June 10, 2020. ↩
- Laura G. Ibañes, “Illa manipula la estadística para anunciar que hay más curados que positivos,” El Mundo, April 24, 2020. ↩
- Adelina Comas-Herrera et al., “Mortality Associated with COVID-19 Outbreaks in Care Homes: Early International Evidence,” LTCcovid.org, April 12, 2020. ↩
- According to the census of 2011. ↩
- Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques, “Nombre de décès quotidiens: France, régions et départements,” Insee.fr, November 13, 2020. ↩
- And Black Americans still “continue to experience the highest actual COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide.” “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the US,” APM Research Lab, November 12, 2020. ↩