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USA: COVID Quackery, Faith, and Race

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“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.

Christian fundamentalist quacks exploit 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 ran TV ads exhorting viewers to call in to churches and pray for forgiveness.

In Kansas, four deadly coronavirus clusters came from religious gatherings. An executive order was issued banning gatherings of more than ten people, but it was vetoed by Republicans. The Kansas Supreme Court overturned the Republican veto and upheld the ban. 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. The decision was slammed as anti-Christian discrimination.

On the flip side, some in the African-American community initially shrugged off the seriousness of COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic this past spring, 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 referred 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.

Responding to skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Chicago’s African-American community, the Mayor 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, the Congressional Black Caucus chair 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.

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.

Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D. is a writer, educator and director.  Her books include Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles (2003), Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011), the novel White Nights, Black Paradise (2015), and the recently published Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist,and Heretical.  She also wrote, directed and produced a short film and play of White Nights, Black Paradise in 2016 and is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project and Black Skeptics L.A.

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