I thought I’d be moving away from COVID-19 today—for the first time since March—but there’s really no way to ignore writing about COVID-19 and the race-related protests in the United States.
“I can’t breathe” has been the rallying cry for the protesters, referring to two cases of police brutality that led to the deaths of African-Americans. The first was in 2014, when a New York policeman put a chokehold on Eric Garner. Videos showed Eric pleading, “I can’t breathe” 11 times before losing consciousness. The policeman involved was acquitted.
This time around, just last May 25, it was in Minneapolis, with videos showing a policeman using his knee for a chokehold on George Floyd, who was lying on the ground. Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe,” but the police officer kept on with his chokehold for 9 minutes.
American history is tainted by racism all through its history, the most brutal on the slaves even long after they were declared free, on the Native Americans, and the waves of migrants, including Europeans who were somewhat darker than the usual Caucasians—Italians, for example.
Asians, too, suffered discrimination: the Chinese who, although fair in complexion, had to be “recolored” yellow, and all the others who tended to be lumped as “Malay,” and that included us Filipinos. Today, the diverse groups tend to adopt, with pride, the generic “people of color.”
I’ve written about American anti-miscegenation laws forbidding “whites” from marrying “non-whites” (defined differently from state to state), which remained in force in several states until 1967 when the US Supreme Court declared such laws a violation of the constitutional guarantee of the right to happiness.
COVID-19 has once again exposed these “racial” fault lines, with infection rates much higher among people of color than among “whites,” correlated with the higher incidence of “underlying conditions” (for example, hypertension and heart disease) that increase vulnerability to COVID-19. The latest “I can’t breathe” victim, George Floyd, had COVID-19 in April.
The latest Department of Foreign Affairs figures for overseas Filipinos infected with COVID-19 was 5,259 as of June 3, a figure limited to Filipino citizens. We have responded with all kinds of discrimination, not allowing them to return to their hometowns.
We forget that many more Filipinos contracted COVID-19 overseas as physicians, nurses, and other health professionals working in the frontlines of the pandemic, and that more than the virus, it was discrimination that worked against them.
An article in the British newspaper The Guardian noted that, during the early days of the pandemic, the first nine physicians of the government’s National Health Service who died were all BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) people. The Guardian observed that BAME health professionals tend to be more reluctant to complain about their working conditions, particularly the lack of proper PPE (personal protective equipment).
Not surprisingly, in the weeks that followed, Filipino nurses and health workers would make it to the list of COVID-19 deaths. Sure, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was photographed wearing a T-shirt from the Philippines, said to be his way of showing his appreciation for Filipinos working in the National Health Service. But what our fellow Filipinos needed was better protective equipment and better protection, period.
Filipinos, whether living in the United States or Britain, or here in the Philippines, need to better understand racism and how it affects us. We need to understand what “I can’t breathe” means, from the way slaves were transported, chained in dank and filthy galleys, from Africa to America, to the way the police manhandle them today, especially with the chokehold.
In these COVID-19 times, “I can’t breathe” becomes more meaningful, with Filipinos and other people of color caring for critically ill people fighting to breathe, fighting to live.
Those of us who have experienced racial discrimination overseas (I lived in the United States for several years) know the feeling of “I can’t breathe” all too well, as we hold back when insulted and assaulted.
I will say, too, “I can’t breathe” when discriminated against by fellow Filipinos here at home, simply because I have a monosyllabic “Intsik” (a slur, I will remind you) surname. That includes the occasional racist insults in the readers’ comments section. I pity such racists for their ignorance, but sometimes feel anger, too, because they are an insult to the Philippines, a country whose rich heritage comes from people of all colors. It is this heritage that allows us to breathe freedom and liberty.
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