Updated: Apr 22
NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson made headlines earlier this month when he took to CNN Town Hall to discuss the similarities he’s observed between the new virus, COVID-19, and the virus he’s been too familiar with since 1991, HIV.
In the segment, Johnson not only examined the spread of misinformation which further stigmatized the virus, but also the racial discrepancies in healthcare resulting in blacks and other people of color as the most vulnerable and affected by the pandemic.
While some people were taken aback by his comments and found the comparisons to be somewhat insensitive to the severity of the coronavirus, when we analyze the way the government and the public responded to the HIV/aids pandemic in the 80s, it gets easier to recognize the parallels between both viruses and how institutional racism played a significant role on the severity of PoC affected.
To this day, HIV/aids are heavily associated with the gay community, mainly due to the initial advertisements of condoms targeted towards gay white men instead of couples in general. Just like people assumed HIV/aids only affected gays or specifically white gays, many people in the black community truly believed they were impervious to the coronavirus due to myths on racial biological differences. These misconceptions caused alarming rates of HIV spreading for gays of color just as blacks face an appalling spike in COVID-19 confirmed cases in the last weeks.
“The same issues we had then, we have now, where bad information, myth about 'it couldn't happen to us in the black community,' not being educated enough about HIV and AIDS,” said Johnson. “The same thing [is happening] with the coronavirus.”
As with the HIV/aids pandemic, COVID-19 quickly resulted in widespread stigma fueled by bigotry. While society learned more about the aids virus, society shunned the gay community, believing any form of physical contact would result in infection. Similarly, society’s backlash against Asians immediately followed The World Health Organization’s announcement that the virus originated in China. Unsurprisingly, blacks are heavily discriminated against in China as suspected carriers of the virus. Last week, reports of a branch in Guangzhou banning black people from entering surfaced on social media further proving the levels of anti-blackness during this pandemic.
In addition, blacks face the most healthcare discrimination barely receiving treatment or even diagnosis of diseases and illnesses more prevalent in their community. Compared to whites, black persons along with other minorities have less access to medical care causing the continued higher rates of morbidity and mortality for most illnesses. In the aids pandemic, this wasn’t an exception, with death tolls affecting them more than any other racial/ethnic group in the U.S. at 44 percent. According to recent data, blacks also sit at the top of the list of those affected with coronavirus, at around 70 percent of cases in the U.S.
“When you think about, first of all, African Americans, we deal with a lot of health issues already,” Johnson told CNN. “So we talk about HIV and AIDS, but obesity, when you think about diabetes, high blood pressure, so all these things we already deal with, then you add coronavirus on top of that, that's a tough situation. And then the lack of access to health care, that's just an unbeatable situation.”
Johnson also pushed for testing to be more accessible for blacks and communities of color who often go untested and untreated due to a lack of affordable healthcare access.
"The problem is people want us to drive to suburban America to get that test," he said. "Why can't you have that testing done right in urban America, right in the inner cities?”
However, it is perhaps this very comment which attracted the most backlash from the audience who were quick to claim it is more a money problem than a race one, pointing out basketball players were prioritized with testing access early on.
While Johnson was accurate in his comparisons of the coronavirus and HIV/Aids, it would’ve helped for him to acknowledge the disparities caused by those with the financial resources to access the testing. NBA players were gifted with the privilege of testing regardless of experiencing no symptoms, while the common working-class American must go through an extensive process to get on a testing waitlist. He pushed an urgency to test for early detection while failing to bring up the heavy financial burden of medical bills only the wealthy (as those in NBA) can pay off.
In hopes to tackle the misinformation and stigma, Johnson called for the black community to end the spread of rumors claiming blacks were impervious to the virus. So even if he could've included wealth disparities in access to testing along with the racial factors, Johnson used his platform to urge others to do their part in helping to minimize the daily coronavirus cases.
"I'm here today to tell all minorities— this virus—you can get it and you can die from it, so make sure yo u do everything you're supposed to do. Stay at home. make sure [you] keep yourself a safe distance from everybody else. Get your mask, get your gloves and stay safe."
Featured image via Today Show