The obvious parallels between our fight against crime and against covid and the lessons we should take from them but probably won't
Homicides are spiking in some cities just as covid is
This is the kind of piece that is pretty difficult to get published in the national outlets that I usually work with. I think the point I’m making is clear and one that people need to consider. Am I wrong?
Now that much of the U.S. has decided to tolerate an unacceptably-high number of unnecessary or preventable covid deaths, it’s time to stop scolding black communities struggling against crime. (Covid cases have risen by about 70 percent this past week compared to the previous week. An increase in deaths is sure to follow.)
Now that we know what it looks like on a wide scale to be unable to solve a problem that seems so damn solvable, we’ll stop listening to opportunistic politicians, provocateurs and the unthinking wax poetically about how they supposedly know what to do about an issue that is chronic but receives outsized attention when it spikes.
Now that it’s once again becoming obvious that predicting or affecting human behavior is among the most difficult undertakings on Earth, we won’t fall back into the same old laments every time another tragedy – like small kids in New York dodging stray bullets on a sidewalk or stray bullets striking small kids in Minnesota – won’t casually make it into caustic stories about the 2022 midterms.
Covid-19 has taught us many hard lessons. Maybe the most important is unfolding as more than 250 Americans are still dying on many days from that disease despite all we know and all we have. We know the cause of the deaths down to the molecule. Literally. We have effective treatments that save people today who would have died last July. We have every single dollar we need to purchase whatever we need for the fight, including a Congress and White House willing to spend it. We have something more than 95 percent of the world doesn’t, full access to drugs that can prevent death maybe 99 percent of the time. We can walk into a Walgreens or Publix unvaccinated and walk out a few minutes later vaccinated without having to open our wallets. And yet on our current pace, nearly 100,000 Americans might be killed by covid over the next 12 months – about five times the number of murders which took place last year and sparked talk of a “crime crisis.”
The connection between the two issues is real. The pandemic maybe a primary cause of the recent spike in crime in some cities, though analysts likely won’t be able to say so with any certainty for awhile. President Joe Biden is urging states to use $350 billion of covid-related funding to help fight crime by, among other things, increasing police budgets. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state that served as covid’s first true hotspot in the United States will do to gun violence what it did to covid, to beat violence the way covid has supposedly been defeated. Actually, Cuomo has it backwards. The state, like the country overall, has done to covid what it has long done to violence, made significant improvements without the ability, or willingness, to stamp it out completely. Cuomo declared an emergency because of a spike in crime from 2019 to 2020. But the state recorded less than 500 murders last year – about 2,000 fewer than what the state experienced annually in the early 1990s. Covid is on a similar trajectory, peaking at about 4,500 daily deaths in early January, down to about a couple hundred a day now, though it is feared daily deaths might increase by the dozens or hundreds in the coming months. Covid cases have begun spiking again, and an increase in death almost always follows within a month’s time. No matter how many lives you save, the ones you don’t will fuel cries of incompetence or indifference.
For those of us who have lived in a kind of crime crisis for much of our lives and hail from communities that have been stereotyped as too violent, too accepting of daily death, too unwilling to just shut up and allow police to brutalize us if that’s what it takes to keep them engaged enough to stop street thugs from also terrorizing us, the parallels between what we’ve long faced and the country’s inability to wrestle the covid death rate down to zero couldn’t be starker. No matter how many candlelight vigils we hold, midnight basketball tournaments we launch, non-profit after-school literacy programs we found, we haven’t wrestled street crime down to zero either.
We’ve marched wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of those we’ve lost. We’ve kept their bloody shoes as mementos and reminders. We’ve mentored drug dealers, set them up with jobs, gotten addicts professional help. We’ve used corporeal punishment against our kids, taken in other people’s kids, talked up the importance of education and hard work. We’ve cried in the streets and screamed from the pulpit to God for help. We’ve gone to city council meetings and held fish fries to raise money for mentorship programs. We’ve partnered with police despite our lack of trust in them because of what they’ve too frequently done to us.
To those looking from the outside, little of that matters because we haven’t been able to wrestle street murders down to zero. It seems to matter to them even less during months or years or in cities where those murders spike higher than the previous year – except when they are trying to earn votes by ginning up fear or scoring ideological points by suggesting that the problem would be solved if only we did what they demand. Or they only listen to those of us who have given into our fears – like we did during the ‘80s and ‘90s when crack cocaine reigned and homicides were at epidemic levels – and say what they want to hear. We shouldn’t ask for an alternative to armed-agents of the state showing up to a convenience store for fake $20 bill or a woman amid an explosive mental health episode. We should settle for even larger police budgets the way we settled for three-strike laws and harsher sentencing that helped destroy our families and communities over the past few decades, they suggest. They’d rather we forget the connection between police violence and street violence, how each fuels the other keeping alive a seemingly never-ending cycle.
But maybe covid will finally force more people to see what they long refused to see, that solving complex problems isn’t as straight-forward as it may seem from the outside looking in. We have a better handle on how to prevent covid deaths than street deaths yet covid deaths remain and may even increase when the weather turns cold. We can administer a two-shot dose of vaccine to prevent upwards of 99 percent of covid deaths. There is no such vaccine for street crime – and yet covid will likely kill five times as many of us anyway. In each case, the deaths will disproportionately affect the black and brown. In each case, the black and brown have historical reasons to distrust the systems charged with preventing such deaths. In each case, selfish-individual decisions by those outside of our communities – resulting in a proliferation of guns, pockets of the country where covid-19 is free to evolve into even deadlier versions of itself and short-term political calculation – make things worse inside our communities.
We’ve spent years showing we actually care about the black and brown lives being snuffed out on our streets and in our communities. We are tired of the funerals, the wasted talent. Unlike those who seem to care only when murder becomes a useful political talking point, we never stop caring. We can’t stop caring. Every day we grieve over that bright young man we mentored who ended up on death row anyway or that young girl we knew would one day break barriers but instead had to be lowered six-feet deep. We never stop holding our breath when the phone rings at 2 a.m. That’s why we know the sense of helplessness doctors and nurses and epidemiologists fighting covid must feel. Because we feel it, too.
A “surprising number of deaths” is likely even though “it doesn’t have to be this way,” CNN’s medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner has warned.
It’s only surprising to those who’ve never had to fight death, knowing that even when you win – when you stave that dark bastard off for another day – there’s a good chance you’ll lose tomorrow because death never stops coming for us.