COVID Quackery, Faith, and Race

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“I’m a Christian and there is a way that the Bible says to protect us from plagues.”

This robust declaration was made by one Prophet Climate Wiseman of South London’s Kingdom Church in defense of his “divine plague protection oil” and red yarn coronavirus “cures.” Wiseman is currently under investigation by England’s Charity Commission and has charged that the secular movement and those who hate God are fueling attacks on his credibility. On his website, Wiseman also boasts that his “Miracle Pack” cure has helped millions in the UK and the US. A grainy promotional video on the site depicts a Black woman using the cure to rebound from dreams about witchcraft.

Like notorious white Christian fundamentalist quack Jim Bakker, the Kingdom Church’s charlatan, who is of African descent, exploits the fears of gullible, low-income believers for a quick buck. Of course, faith healing and snake oil have a long, twisted legacy. Religious crooks have always used them to line their pockets while pimping divine access, but the latest crop of “propheteers” is even more pernicious when viewed within the context of a pandemic that is devastating Black communities and other communities of color.

From Evangelical defiance about holding church services to faith-based rumors of miracle cures and urban legend conspiracy theories minimizing the outbreak, COVID quackery is a virus unto itself. On the far right, COVID-19 denialists and skeptics hold court on Fox News, ginning up vitriol while portraying the pandemic as a Democratic conspiracy to hijack Trump’s reelection. After the US outbreak accelerated in March, homophobic white evangelical pastors framed COVID-19 as a symptom of God’s judgment against immoral LGBTQ communities. Right-wing Christian Trump supporters like Billy Graham offspring Franklin Graham ran TV ads exhorting viewers to call in to his ministry and pray for forgiveness. Liberty University head Jerry Falwell Jr., another spawn of a right-wing fundamentalist dynasty, told Fox that coronavirus might be a “bioweapon manufactured in North Korea.”

In Kansas, four deadly coronavirus clusters came from religious gatherings. After Governor Laura Kelly issued an executive order banning gatherings of more than ten people, it was vetoed by Republicans. As a result, Kelly asked the Kansas Supreme Court to overturn the Republican veto and uphold the ban, which the court did this weekend. In advance of Easter, Kentucky’s Democratic governor announced that he would require those who violate a state order on large gatherings, including at churches, to quarantine for fourteen days. Republican Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, who made headlines when he tested positive for coronavirus last month, slammed the decision as anti-Christian discrimination.

On the flip side, some in the African-American community initially shrugged off the seriousness of COVID-19. As recently as last week, my mother was asked by a man in the grocery store why she was wearing a mask. “You know Black folks can’t get it, right?” he chuckled. A cousin routinely refers to the pandemic as the “so-called” coronavirus outbreak. Although science skepticism among Black folks was historically tied to institutionalized medical apartheid targeting Black bodies, the persistence of myths that African Americans are immune to COVID-19 is also part of a larger climate of faith-based and reactionary pushback. Case in point is a widely circulated tweet suggesting that immunity is God’s reward for Black folks enduring slavery.

Faith-based denialism and quackery are especially insidious given deep racial disparities in work, health access, and contraction rates. Writing in a March Christianity Today article, authors Elaine Howard Ecklund and Deidra Carroll Coleman speculated that anxiety about the virus might be a form of privilege. Black folks could be far too preoccupied with struggling to provide for their families in the day-to-day to be concerned about taking precautions. In addition, blue collar Black workers are less likely to have paid sick leave and job benefits that safeguard them from layoffs. They are also the least likely to be employed in jobs that allow them to telework.

In her article, “On Being Black, Southern, and Rural in the Time of COVID-19,” Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson examines the role subpar healthcare access has played in the rapidly accelerating number of Black folks affected by COVID-19. Henderson zeroes in on the failure of many Southern states to fund Medicaid expansions. The absence of healthcare access contributes to a violent self-fulfilling prophecy—African Americans are shut out of the healthcare system, are more likely to have underlying conditions exacerbated by these gaps in care, are not fully educated about the dangers of COVID-19, and consequently end up contracting the disease in disproportionate numbers.

Responding to skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Chicago’s African-American community, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has created a Racial Equity Rapid Response team that focuses on providing communities with information, health resources, and science-based education. On the federal level, Congressional Black Caucus chair and Los Angeles Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA) is pursuing a bill that will provide COVID-19 education, treatment, and funding for African-American community-based organizations. Measures would also be put in place to ensure release of and protections for incarcerated populations who are most imperiled by the pandemic.

“We declared racism as a public health issue,” says the health commissioner in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Black people account for almost half of COVID-19 cases and a staggering 81 percent of deaths from the disease. “It frames not only how we do our work, but how transparent we are. It impacts how we manage an outbreak.” Milwaukee was one of the first cities to publish its racial data and develop an action plan for disproportionately affected communities. Science-based education and data, equitable testing and treatment, rejection of faith-based hysteria, and a strong push for a stimulus that specifically addresses the public health legacy of racism, poverty, and white supremacy are the best weapons for loosening COVID’s deadly grip.