Janell Ross, NBC News, March 19, 2020
The news last week that NBA player Rudy Gobert, a Frenchman of Caribbean heritage, had tested positive for the coronavirus shattered a myth that some of the world’s more conspiracy-minded had circulated online through jokes, news stories and social media posts.
Black people are not, in fact, immune to the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the Afro-British actor Idris Elba, who lives part time in the United States and tested positive for COVID-19 this week, posted on social media about his early lack of symptoms and subsequent changes, how he managed to be tested, the dangers of the disease — and the myth of black immunity.
“Something that is scaring me, when I read the comments and some of the reactions, my people, black people, please, please understand that coronavirus is … you can get it,” Elba said. “There are so many stupid, ridiculous conspiracy theories about black people not being able to get it. …That is the quickest way to get more black people killed. And I’m talking about the whole world, wherever we are. … Just know you have to be just as vigilant as every other race.”
Variations on the immunity myth — claims that black worshipers can’t be infected at church where a pastor refused to cancel in-person services and false assertions that there are zero COVID-19 infections in Africa to name a few — remain on the internet along with other fantastical ideas. The myth of group immunity may, public health, disease control and bioethicists say, provide some people with a bit of levity or sense of control in a seemingly dire time. But the risk of false information circulating in any form far outweighs the value of a few chuckles or nerve-calming denial.
While the false notion of black immunity to coronavirus has, to some degree, faded in the days since the Gobert news — which was followed by several other black NBA players testing positive as well — other absurd notions, conspiracy theories and lies have rippled through many social media feeds.
“There are a whole range of crazy notions gaining traction,” said Gail Christopher, executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity. “We all would like to have hope right now to counter the anxiety that the bulk of the news is giving us. So anybody is possibly vulnerable to misinformation. We do, all have, naturally, a psychological propensity to cling to hope, but that is also part of what makes this so dangerous.”
“The COVID-19 outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic,'” the organization said in a statement to NBC News last week.
The WHO is also working with social media companies and influencers to detect misinformation and limit its spread, the agency added
“These myths have a track record not just of shaping attitudes but of shaping policy and practice in public and private spaces, in hospitals and in schools, in workplaces, too,” said Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, lawyer and sociologist who researches race in medicine. “It’s not farfetched to fear that now.”
In the 1790s, nearly two decades after he signed the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a respected white Philadelphia physician, and others advanced the idea that black people were somehow biologically immune to yellow fever. Rush did so during a massive outbreak in that city. Black people, Rush and others said, were uniquely positioned to care for the sick, dig graves, and cart away and bury bodies. In the end, 4,000 to 5,000 people died, including an estimated 240 black residents.
Given that history, this month, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a column refuting false claims that black Americans are immune to coronavirus. The city is more than 42 percent black. But the problem of racial myths in medicine remains a part of modern thinking well beyond Philadelphia, Roberts said.