As evidence mounts that black Americans are feeling a disproportionate weight of the coronavirus pandemic, some are unaware of an ironic rumor that has now been debunked.
That rumor held that black people were immune or more resistant to COVID-19.
Citylab.com characterized the rumor as an attempt at humor, with the March 14 headline, “Why You Should Stop Joking That Black People are Immune to Coronavirus.”
But the rumor persists. According to the newspaper The Baltimore Sun, as recently as April 14, “Baltimore officials are planning a targeted ad campaign to reach the city’s black residents in hopes of combating rumors that black people cannot get the new coronavirus, the city’s health commissioner announced Tuesday.”
In the story, by reporter Emily Opilo, the Sun notes that “During a news conference at City Hall, Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said Baltimore officials are concerned about ‘persistent’ rumors that the coronavirus is not impacting the city’s black population when the reverse is true. She said black residents account for more of Maryland’s confirmed cases than other populations, and African Americans have a higher mortality rate from the disease.”
The rumor was widespread. It was reported on by the Chicago Tribune, NBC News, the Detroit Free Press, and Newsweek among others. It made it into the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live February 29. And it made its way to Birmingham, too.
“I think I heard, at the beginning of the COVID, one of our staff telling me his son in school, a friend of his who is African American –- saying “Oh we’re going to be fine because African Americans are not as high risk!” said Mona Fouad, head of UAB’s Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center.
Gregory Townsend, a retired health services administrator with the Jefferson County Health Department, also heard the rumor, which he believes, led some people to take unnecessary risks.
“There were several articles, several comments on social media regarding COVID-19, coronavirus and African Americans,” he said. “The first narrative that came out is that we are immune to the virus because of the melanin in our skin.
“And you know, initially there was a sense of euphoria, heightened sense of pride because now we can do something that nobody else can do. We’re superhuman black people that can ward off this illness. Other folks are gonna die, but black people are going to live. So that circulated widely on social media during the early stages,” he said.
In the face of evidence that exactly the opposite is true, the question is why so many believed it in the first place.
“Why did we believe it? Because … we don’t read, we don’t evaluate, we don’t study,” Townsend said. “Somebody throws something out there and there are times that we grab hold to it and it spreads like wildfire because we want to feel good about something. Because we’re the group of people that’s always last with everything.”
Another reason some black people were eager to believe it, he said, has to do with a deep-seated distrust of the healthcare system based on historical examples.
“We can pull it back to Henrietta Lacks… who had cells in her body, cancer just grew wild in her and they used her as a guinea pig to find many cures for cancer,” Townsend said.
Lacks was indeed a cancer victim, diagnosed in 1951 by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who treated her with radium. Researchers found that unlike other people with the disease, Lacks’ cells didn’t die after being removed for a biopsy — they continued doubling every 20-24 hours, keeping them alive longer for study.
Although Lacks died at age 31, researchers use those still proliferating “HeLa” immortalized cells “to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine,” according to hopkinsmedicine.org
The fact that Henrietta Lacks’ cell line was being used without her knowledge or that of her family members — they learned of what had happened only in the 1970s — has raised numerous questions about informed consent and privacy. Issues have also been raised because she was African American, being treated at the only hospital nearby that would treat black patients.
Townsend also cited a more famous reason for black mistrust in the medical establishment: the now-infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a 40-year clinical study run by the United States Public Health Service begun in 1932 in collaboration with Tuskegee University. In that study, black men who had syphilis were not told they had the disease, not given the known effective treatment for it (penicillin) so researchers could observe what happened when syphilis was left untreated.
Mistrust of the health care system can lead to skepticism when widespread warnings are given, and an openness to an alternative narrative – like a rumor.
The rumor may have its roots in Africa, where, as noted in an article on theconversation.com, the notion that Africans were not being affected by COVID-19 was already proliferating across the continent.
“This was fueled partly by the fact that a Cameroonian student in China, who was among the first people to contract the disease, responded well to treatment,” the article noted. “But there is no proof that melanin protects black people from the coronavirus. There is also no scientific evidence that African blood composition prevents Africans from contracting the coronavirus…. This myth is not limited to Africa. Twitter has recently been abuzz with claims of African-Americans being immune to coronavirus.”
Regardless of the origin or the reasons people believed the rumor, the myth is a dangerous one, Townsend said.
“Certainly, it influenced behavior within the black community,” Townsend said. “They say if you know better you should be able to do better but if you don’t know how you are going to do better. So because we don’t know what the data says, we believe a lot of misinformation out there. Certainly, some people picked that up and ran with it.”