The virus of whiteness

COVID-19 has been used to justify xenophobia and anti-Asian racism, but a white South African woman’s hoarding behavior illustrates the global anti-black and anti-poor response to crises.

Nelson Mandela Statue, Union Buildings, Tshwane, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa. Image via South African Toursim Flickr CC.

On the eve of the South African explosion of COVID-19 and a return to closed borders, weeks after the disappearance of travel-sized bottles of hand sanitizer from shop shelves, a white woman in the country’s capital, Tshwane, modeled exactly the type of thinking at the root of social disparities that are deepened during the spread of pandemics. While it is widely recognized that COVID-19 has been used to justify xenophobia and anti-Asian racism, this woman’s behavior has illustrated a global anti-black and anti-poor response to crises that is only just now coming to light in the mainstream media.

As a black employee in a suburban pharmacy hurriedly stocked huge bottles of medical-grade sanitizer, a white woman blocked the aisle with her cart, snatching every bottle as fast as she could. The employee offered to put the bottles directly into the white woman’s cart, only to face a snarled reply: “Do not touch my things.” The immediate ownership, the claiming of the entire stock of sanitizer, the rudeness to the black employee, the intentional blocking of the aisle are all perfect reflections of apartheid-era practice: this white woman maintained her privileged status at a direct correlational cost to others. While hoarding is often considered a compulsive need to collect items often seen as worthless, in this case, her hoarding was a violent dismissal of the employee’s humanity, of the many other potential patrons similarly in search of sanitizer to limit their chances of contracting the virus.

Stressful situations like the global spread of COVID-19 and related media over coverage can lead to less than helpful coping mechanisms on both a personal level and national level (like closing borders and fostering xenophobia, something South Africa already knows all too well), her approach mirrors the global privilege employed in and by wealthier nations. In what can be analogized as a coronavirus landgrab, this unnamed white woman limited the access of others to protect herself. Her prioritization of personal survival over others reflects the naivete of how contagion works, but also what living within a nation of others means. Indeed, COVID-19 spreads person-to-person through respiratory droplets from an infected individual’s cough or sneeze; most easily spread through close contact (within about six feet or two meters). Thus, her proximity to others is precisely what puts her at risk. Protective measures that limit others’ capacity to protect themselves can, ironically, increase her likelihood of contagion. If others in her proximity are increasingly likely to contract the virus, in part because they have less access to 60-95 percent alcohol-based sanitizer she was hoarding and given that many township communities do not have reliable access to running water, they, in turn, are more likely to share COVID-19 with her. (While alcohol-based hand sanitizers can reduce the number of microbes, they won’t kill all types of germs, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC). As a less effective alternative to handwashing with soap and water, hand sanitizers with 60-95 percent alcohol should be used by covering the full surface of hands and then rubbing until dry.)

Her landgrab, then, echoes South African social, economic, health, and cultural racial disparities, as white communities, less than 10 percent of South Africa’s population, continue to own wealth-related measures well above their proportional representation, despite failed attempts to address historic apartheid legacies. These racial disparities in access to wealth and the protections from social ills that accompany poverty continue unabated, limiting the entire nation’s ascendance from a racist colonial state to a truly multiracial, economically vibrant country that rises the tide for those most desolate.

Meanwhile, in the pharmacy aisle, the woman’s cart full of alcohol-based disinfectant was momentarily interrupted by what could be described as a “white ally.” Another white woman, of similar Afrikaner accent, skirted around the blockading cart, and with a curt “sorry,” cut in front of the first woman, grabbing the sole bottle remaining on the shelf. The ally quickly assessed the situation, and with a “Tsst,” dismissed the landgrabber aloud. The woman with the alcohol-based solution stockpile retorted: “This is for my family, it is not just for me.” Perhaps emboldened by defensiveness, the white ally pounced: “Yah, but there are other people who could use one or two bottles, neh? You are stopping others.” The land-grabber’s face flushed as she retreated, dragging her cart towards the checkout queue, but not before the white ally could shake her head, look towards the witnessing author and black employee, and let out: “I swear some people!” The black employee sighed, broke down the now empty product box, and muttered the Zulu word for “white person” under her breath: “Umlungu!”

Soon both white women were in the queue, silently seething, demonstrating the selfishness of whiteness, the limited challenges white allies will engage, and the ultimate shared dismissal of black humanity. South African racial reality suggests these white women would load their luxury cars with their protective goods, retreat to their palaces situated behind ten-foot high walls topped with electric wire, with the full comforts of running water and matching soap dispensers. The bulk of black South Africa, however, will persist in township and rural communities with limited access to basic sanitation like running water or soap, living with heightened access to communicable diseases and viruses and decreased immune systems ripe for exposure. The lack of access to health care, combined with high rates of tuberculosis and HIV rates, calculate to a greater impact and likelihood of death, silenced by hoarding and the soft protests of white allies.

COVID-19 is simply the latest manifestation of hoarding resources to preserve whiteness to limit black survival. And until South Africa, and every other nation, fosters access to health care, housing, food, and dignified, economically viable employment opportunities, the survival of our globe “will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued, but never attained.”

For more on how to limit the spread of the coronavirus, please reference the World Health Organization.

About the Author

Christopher B. Knaus is Professor of Education at the University of Washington Tacoma and visiting scholar at the University of South Africa.

Rodney Perkins is a PhD Student at the University of Washington. An experienced nurse with nearly 25 years of experience in clinical practice and education.

Further Reading