How COVID-19 Has Highlighted Both Systemic Privilege and Oppression


Josephine Kinlan

On a vacant street in Ormond Beach, Florida stands Josephine Kinlan ’22. Kinlan is a Staff Reporter for ‘The Science Survey.’ During quarantine, she frequently exercised safely outdoors, dabbled in arts and cooking, and has recently been training for volleyball as summer approaches. The media sparked her interest in how COVID-19 has been disproportionately affecting underprivileged communities, and she felt strongly that the issues at play were worth writing about; in the wake of the massive Black Lives Matter movement agenda, she also feels that these realities are of the greatest importance to be discussing at this moment, so that as a nation we can move forward with more equality for all and a greater sense of unity.

Back in March 2020, most of America went under lockdown in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from reaching the extreme magnitude that many scientists and experts warned that it was capable of. As of June 23, 2020, some states and cities are still shut down to varying degrees, and even in most places that are slowly beginning to reopen, caution is of the utmost importance when trying to find a new balance of normalcy (New York City is just beginning Phase 2 of 4 reopening plans). 

In response to the government-imposed shutdowns, groups of protesters arose in April and May 2020, demanding the reopening of their states. These protesters were most densely populated in Washington, Michigan, Texas, Maryland, and rural parts of California. Sources who have analyzed these rallies – like NBC News, Wired, and Vox – and photographers who have captured images of these protests, have shown us that the majority of protesters are white, and many are pro-gun, conservative, and supporters of President Trump. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude it is very much the impact of racial and class privilege which enables these protesters to rebel. What is also evident is the ultimate obliviousness that they have regarding the consequences of their actions, when it comes to such realities.

In Michigan, one of the primary states where reopening protests were the most common, protesters blocked healthcare workers from their jobs. This caused these essential workers to be late to their jobs, placing stress on their hospitals and forcing other workers to cover for them, but other than that, there were fortunately no major setbacks from the protest. A greater concern is the spread of COVID-19 amongst the protesters who were not practicing social distancing, and many of whom were not wearing masks. The approach to this protest may have been a strategic means of nonviolence to make an essential point – but anyone can see that the choice to harm the lives of those endangered by COVID-19 by stopping essential workers from getting to their destinations is an extremely selfish act. The lack of empathy for those who are at greater risk for COVID-19, because of their lack of access and/or availability to healthcare is troubling. 

Protesters also rallied at their state’s capitols, denouncing stay-at-home orders. Many of them were armed with guns and wore ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, showing support for President Donald Trump. The majority of these protesters were white.

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected poorer neighborhoods during this time period, and data shows that the majority of people who have passed away due to the Coronavirus are African-American and Latinx. COVID-19 exposed the discrepancies in healthcare and funding in these lower-income communities that has resulted from systematic oppression – the majority of white people are not as much affected by systematic oppression, as they have historically benefited from it. Thus, the cries of whites to reopen lacks a feeling of empathy for people who are not as privileged – this privilege being defined as the opportunity to live without the repercussions of systematic oppression. 

When compared to human rights protests – especially those about police brutality and racial equality – there are very clear discrepancies between the two protests: police responses were more violent, more people of color protested, and more importantly, the groups protested two things on very different scales. In protests against police brutality and racial inequality, people of color, and those standing with them in solidarity chant phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “Don’t shoot.” These phrases are centered around the right to be alive – a right every human should have, as stated by our Constitution. Contrarily, people at anti-quarantine protests held signs stating “Live Free or Die” and “Defy Fascist Lockdown.” Some of the less generalizing posters stated “All Businesses are Essential” and “My Constitutional Rights are Essential” – but they still show that there is a significant misunderstanding of the government’s intentions by enforcing lockdown: these people believe their rights to be compromised, when in reality, the measures taken are for the protection and consideration of all.

In summary, the ideas being fought for at human rights movements – like Black Lives Matter protests – are ones demanding of the right to life, whereas those at anti-quarantine protests are much more misconstrued – claiming to be about liberty, but are often just a wish for a return to normalcy.

What does this mean? Well, the right to life is unarguably the bare minimum of existence in a society, while freedom and property lie respectively above it. It can be concluded, therefore, that black and POC communities feel more threatened by their society and feel as though they have to fight for the bare minimum, whereas the majority of the white anti-stay-at-home protesters have the privilege to argue for other things.

This is the reason that we see such a lack of black and POC protesters at these anti-stay-at-home protests. COVID-19’s disproportionate damage to black and POC communities is a result of systematic oppression that has put them in lower-income communities, to receive the worst of society’s benefits. These neighborhoods typically receive lower levels of quality education, and a lack of resources and funding from government officials, which eventually causes their lack of resources to limit their social mobility, generation after generation. Due to their lower healthcare resources and higher proportion of people with underlying health conditions, with these communities, the prospect of returning to work is not an entirely desirable one, as it may be for whiter communities.

The push to reopen states by protesters might be passionate and from the perspective of protesters, a preservation of their constitutional rights – but there has also been a lack of genuine consideration for what reopening a state would mean for all groups of people. Those who are more susceptible, from less fortunate black and POC communities, would be the ones taking the brunt of relapsing cases if states were to reopen – but these white protesters do not seem to have realized this point. Or more disturbingly, maybe they have, but simply do not care. Overall, what is evident is the effects of privilege on our system. Even with all of its detriments, COVID-19 has opened the world’s eyes to the many issues of modern society – we cannot ignore them. It is time for change.

Even with all of its detriments, COVID-19 has opened the world’s eyes to the many issues of modern society – we cannot ignore them. It is time for change.