A few weeks ago, before outrage engulfed the streets, before the rush of protesters and social media posts, back when George Floyd still lived and breathed, I saw a tweet from Black Lives Matter activist Zelli Imani that foreshadowed what was to come. “Same city. Same police force,” it read, accompanied by two photographs. One showed a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer handing out masks to a group of white friends in a crowded park, the composition saturated and utopian in its green grass and blue skies. The other showed an NYPD officer pinning a Black man’s neck to the ground with his legs. It was a still frame from a widely shared video of a social distancing-related arrest—one of many such videos in circulation.
The recent rush of protests over our country’s broken policing system may seem antagonistic to COVID-19 social distancing orders, which were issued, rightfully, to save lives amidst the spread of a deadly virus. The images are indeed striking in their contrast: narrow city streets, eerily deserted and silent three weeks ago, now burst at the seams with protesters, whose shouts for justice bounce against the tall buildings that encircle them. But the relationship between our country’s racist carceral system and the COVID-19 pandemic is less oppositional and more a deeply entangled symbiosis, particularly for Black Americans. The NYPD’s enforcement of social distancing policies exemplifies this. It is no coincidence that Black New Yorkers died from COVID-19 at twice the rate of their white neighbors, while also receiving two-thirds of all arrests for pandemic-related offenses. For the past few months, Black people in America have fought two plagues: a global pandemic, and a carceral system that helps feed and augment its deadliness.
Black scholars have drawn attention to the public health crisis of police brutality and mass incarceration for years. At Yale, history professor Carolyn Roberts’s popular “Sickness and Health in African American History” course dedicated a unit to it this fall, while history of medicine professor Miriam Rich’s “Health and Incarceration in U.S. History” seminar dissected it for an entire semester. In 2015, police violence in U.S. cities killed more people than did pneumonia and influenza. The stolen lives of these men and women, who are disproportionately Black, should be cause enough for rage. Unfortunately, however, the public health crisis runs far deeper.
First, those currently incarcerated face significant public health risks. Within jails and prisons, health care injustice runs rampant. Incarcerated women, for example, suffer dehumanizing infringements of their reproductive rights, including shackling, the practice of chaining a woman to her bed as she gives birth. COVID-19, meanwhile, has a 2.5-times higher infection rate among incarcerated populations than it does for the rest of the U.S.
But even among those currently free, mere contact with the carceral system can bruise and scar. Young men who experience frequent aggressive policing report more symptoms of trauma and anxiety, and men and women exposed to stop and frisks experience levels of decreased physical, mental, and social well-being comparable to that of reincarcerated individuals. These effects impact family members, too. Children with incarcerated parents experience greater risk of developing depression, PTSD, asthma, and migraines, and women with a family member in prison face more than double the odds of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Chronic stress wreaks physiological havoc, too.
When fighting a disease whose progression and treatment is as uncharted as COVID-19’s, every ounce of well-being matters. Perhaps, then, the wide-reaching health impacts of mass incarceration and police brutality might help explain why Black people vastly disproportionately bear the burden of COVID-19 deaths nationwide. Denise Herd, a public health professor at the University of California in Berkeley, for example, blames chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, brought on by the ever-present stress of living in environments with violent policing, as major contributors to Black Americans’ worse outcomes in the pandemic. Her theories supplement the various explanations that have been circulated surrounding COVID-19 disparities, all of which come back to historic and structural discrimination.
The psyche of trauma is also contagious—in some ways more so than viruses, as even those physically far away from police brutality feel its echoes. Vicarious trauma, or distress due to indirect exposure to violence—also a reason why we should not recklessly share videos of police brutality on social media—leads Black Americans to suffer a collective 50 million days of poor mental health per year specifically due to police killings of unarmed Black people. And perhaps most perniciously, these effects endure from one generation to the next. Not just in the sense of collective histories, which already carry heavy emotional weight, but from a biological standpoint: research in the field of epigenetics suggests that traumatic events may produce molecular changes in how people express certain genes, and thus, how they act.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, Herd’s colleague at Berkeley, professor Erin Kerrison notes, a painful understanding of past violations directly influences the implications of certain public health guidelines. For example, Black people may fear the consequences of wearing masks in public due to law enforcement’s history of violence against those who merely “looked shady”—Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder by a neighborhood watch patroller being an infamous example.
“I don’t feel safe wearing a handkerchief or something else that isn’t CLEARLY a protective mask covering my face to the store because I am a Black man living in this world. I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive,” wrote Twitter user @Aaron_TheThomas in April.
Multiple incidences have already proven that these worries are, unfortunately, well-justified. Illinois state representative Ken Buckner, for example, reported being aggressively questioned by a police officer after shopping while wearing a face mask. “I couldn’t see your face, man. You looked like you were up to something,” the officer had said.
Police brutality and mass incarceration have been proven time and time again to present direct physiological and psychological dangers to Black Americans’ health. Yet some politicians still have the nerve to be baffled. “Why is it three or four times more so for the Black community as opposed to other people? It doesn’t make sense and I don’t like it,” President Donald Trump said of the COVID-19 health care disparities in April.
And then in May, when referring to mass outrage over George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police, Trump tweeted: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
In Trump’s comments, and in the NYPD’s unequal enforcement of social distancing orders, we see our carceral system and our COVID-19 public health policies twisting together in paradoxical, perverse ways. Police brutality and mass incarceration occupy significant space within the torn and ragged picture of our country’s rampant health care injustice. But as the pandemic sharpens and clarifies these disparities, elevating their life-or-death stakes to new levels, we grant law enforcement even more control.
The protesters crowding the streets—their cause transcends one man’s death, and it even transcends our broken policing system. The Black Lives Matter movement unravels the centuries-old ways in which our racist carceral system wreaks havoc on Black Americans’ well-being, current pandemic included. And if we can care about a COVID-19 vaccine, and face masks, and public health in general, we ought to care about activists’ demands, too.