COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
COVID denialism in the US is problematic to say the least. The nation is facing a public health crisis that’s far worse than it needs to be, as shown by the examples of countless other nations around the world that have largely suppressed the first wave. In fact, the US is one of the most dangerous places to be for this pandemic.
We have failed to pursue common sense policies and collective action here due to the ignorant attitudes not only of our leadership but of a significant share of our population.
Three recent interviews I did for my podcast, “Voices for Nature & Peace,” highlighted the connection between this unfortunate state of affairs and our status as a settler-colonial state. These three guests were Margaret Kimberley, a columnist at the Black Agenda Report and member of the Black Alliance for Peace; Joanna Pocock, the Canadian-born, London-residing author of “Surrender,” a memoir about living in the western US; and Alley Valkyrie, a US American activist, writer and artist in France.
What is “settler colonialism”? A method of expanding a nation’s area in which ordinary citizens take the lead by physically occupying un-ceded land themselves, using violence or the threat of violence, often for resource extraction activities like mining, ranching, logging or farming. Spreading religion is another justification. When the area’s original inhabitants defend themselves — or even when they don’t, and just try to negotiate peacefully — they are moved or massacred by the nation’s military. (Hence the term, “calling in the cavalry.”)
The United States of America was founded this way, as waves of European colonists moved from east to west, dispossessing Native Americans of their home territories as they went. In fact, one of the two main reasons for seeking independence from the British was because they forbade colonists from stealing land west of the Appalachians. The other main reason was to preserve and spread the institution of slavery.
Though “the frontier” was officially declared closed in 1890, and the so-called “Indian Wars” are said to have ended by 1924, the US remains a settler colonial state. The physical occupation is ongoing, as well as the mindsets that motivate it.
Settler colonialism is adamantly individualistic and driven by greed. Said Margaret Kimberley:
“[We have] this history of settler-colonialism where people had to be hostile to each other. Your goal was to invade someone else’s land, or enslave someone, or grab something before somebody else could. We’re still living with that and we have to fight against it.”
This approach to life was bad enough during business-as-usual, but in the middle of a pandemic, it’s deadly. The hostility has taken active form in assaults on retail employees at stores that require masks, and in the refusal to wear masks. This “nobody’s gonna tell me what to do” belligerence is the opposite of what we need right now.
Writer Joanna Pocock, whose two years living in Montana form the backbone of her book “Surrender,” says that the US American concept of “freedom” seems to her to be based on a brief period in the 19th Century when white settlers were able to run roughshod over both native people and native landscapes with virtually no limitations on their rapacious behavior. Again, it was wrong then and it’s wrong now.
The fact that the two demographics hardest hit by COVID-19 in the US have been Native Americans and African Americans is a perversely ironic tragedy, given that these were the two demographics hardest hit by settler colonialism. When people deny or downplay COVID-19, they are compounding the suffering of these populations, and helping write a new chapter of settler colonialism’s toxic legacy.
As for the skepticism that the pandemic is even real?
Only by ignoring news from around the world is one able to uphold a fantasy like that. The provincialism of such a belief is also a product of the US’s self-obsession, as if whatever happens anyplace else is either a) all about the US or b) doesn’t matter.
It might come as a surprise to some US Americans to hear this, but the world does not revolve around the US. Whatever central position the nation once held has been eroding for some time now, especially rapidly since 2016. The economy, for example, was already in free fall before the pandemic.
Some might like to blame Trump for all this, but neither Margaret Kimberley nor Alley Valkyrie were so sure that it would have been much better under another administration. Valkyrie pointed out that 50 different states would still have been setting 50 different policies. Kimberley was confident that partisanship would still have played a deleterious role. Both agreed that there is something in the US American character that would have resisted doing the right thing no matter who was in the White House.
Both also agreed that it’s been disappointing to see so many people on the left spouting COVID-denying bullshit, though Kimberley said:
“Another way to look at it is, when there’s a crisis, you find out where people stand. There’s people’s politics I align with most of the time, but they dispute everything they are told. I’m not saying you can necessarily trust the government… [but] wearing a mask — to me — is common sense. If there’s a communicable respiratory disease that I can get from you and you can get from me, it’s common sense if we cover our mouths and our noses.”
This disputing of everything that one is told is a characteristic that I have also noticed and been frustrated by. With COVID-19, this is not merely a case of the US government making claims that might be questionable due to corporate influence or partisanship. We’re talking about the worldwide medical community sharing data and experiences in a predominantly open way.
The idea that a vast conspiracy is being executed against ordinary citizens in the US by a combination of paramedics in New York, doctors in China, elder-care workers in Italy, epidemiologists in Korea and researchers in Brazil — to name just a handful of the medical professionals who have been working directly with the pandemic — is so absurd that we need a new word for “delusional.”
I now regret being so easy going with the “eccentric” beliefs of all my hippie and New Age friends over the last couple decades. It never felt like a big deal to let them indulge in their pseudo-scientific claims, and, after all, who was I to say if they were wrong? Well, now their misguided notions come with a big price tag, as too many of them claim the pandemic is a “hoax” or that all we have to do is build up our immune systems and eat right.
I’m all for herbal medicine, a healthy diet and no GMOs — I did, after all, spend a decade as an organic farmer of vegetables, medicinals and open-pollinated seeds — but I also know that infectious diseases require their own response that’s based not merely on modern science, but also on centuries of human experience with pandemics. Quarantines, for example, are an age old method of reducing the spread of disease that have been used effectively since long before germ theory.
Valkyrie mentioned that all French students are required to take a philosophy course at the high school level, with the result that everyone has been taught the basics of critical thinking. That’s obviously not the case here in the US, and as kind and well-meaning as many of my hippie and New Age friends might be, their lack of critical thinking skills has never been more apparent …or potentially harmful.
Valkyrie also pointed out that a cultural memory of past pandemics still exists in Europe. “The Plague” has never been forgotten. By contrast, she said, people in the US are cut off from their cultural memory when they immigrate here. By becoming colonial settlers, we give up a connection to the past that would ordinarily help inform our present and guide our future.
Of course, not everyone in the US has been sheltered from the experience of infectious disease and I must add this quotation from a gay friend:
“Re: freedom and requirements for masks, distancing: A lot of you aren’t Gay folks who came of age during the AIDS epidemic, and it shows.”
For real. I spent a lot time in gay bars in Minneapolis in the early ’90s when fear of AIDS was very much present in the social atmosphere. I had a boyfriend then who was older than me and who had lost virtually all his friends in the ’80s. I remember the first time I was tested for HIV, in 1995. At that time you had to wait a week for the results and it felt like the longest week ever. When the “negative” paperwork came back, I was so relieved I nearly cried, and I framed it and hung it on my apartment wall.
So when this pandemic came along, I just shifted gears into “act smart” mode. Wear a mask? Okay, no problem. If they’re wrong and this disease it’s no big deal, then whatever; some slight inconvenience. But if they’re right, then it’s nothing to fuck around with.
That our choices can have negative consequences for other people is simply a fact. But in a settler colonial culture, that fact doesn’t matter. Nobody matters but you.
But a cognitive dissonance can arise. You’ve convinced yourself that you live in a world where you have no limitations, but then events show you that you’re wrong. What then? A lot of people have been latching on to wild stories and unfounded conspiracies, but one can alternately take up a more mature, positive approach. On this subject, I love what my friend Pearl Solora Zule said:
“Confront, forgive, and work through and beyond your own cognitive dissonance.”
This is internal, individual work, and it matters. Always has. Always will;
I’ll be honest. I’m pretty amazed and also super pissed off at how ridiculous so many people have been about COVID-19. So I’ll end with this quotation from pal and fellow podcaster, Patrick Farnsworth:
“I knew collapse was underway in this country for a while now, but I didn’t expect it to be this fucking stupid.”
Nope, neither did I, brother. Neither did I.
But given our history and our culture as a settler colonial state, I should have seen it coming.