[dc]"I[/dc]'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 U.S. 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.
Religious crooks have always used them to line their pockets while pimping divine access, but the latest crop of prophet-eers is even more pernicious when viewed within the context of a pandemic that is devastating Black communities.
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 prophet-eers 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 (e.g. Trump's widely refuted claims about hydroxychloroquine) and urban legend conspiracy theories minimizing the outbreak, COVID quackery is a virus unto itself. On the far right, COVID denialists and skeptics hold court at Fox News, ginning up vitriol while portraying the pandemic as a Democratic conspiracy to hijack Trump’s reelection.
After the U.S. outbreak accelerated in March, homophobicwhite evangelical pastors framed COVID 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 Kansas 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.
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 Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, 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. 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 white supremacist medical apartheid targeting black bodies, the persistence of myths that African Americans are “immune” to COVID 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 and Deidra 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 health care access expansion has played in the rapidly accelerating number of Black folks affected by COVID. Henderson zeroes in on the failure of many Southern states to fund Medicaid expansions. The absence of health care access contributes to a violent self-fulfilling prophecy—African Americans are shut out of the health care system, are more likely to have underlying conditions exacerbated by these gaps in health care, are not fully educated about the dangers of COVID, 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 is pursuing a bill that will provide COVID 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.
In Milwaukee, where half of the city’s cases are Africa American, the health commissioner said, “We declared racism as a public health issue...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, rejecting faith-based hysteria, and pushing for a racial justice stimulus that specifically addresses the public health legacy of racism, poverty, and white supremacy are the best weapons for loosening COVID’s deadly grip.