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Protest in a Time of Pandemic

Dan Aasland, George Floyd protests in Minneapolis on May 28, 2020

As I write this, I am in mourning like so many in the US. For the last few days, in the wake of horrific killing of George Floyd, the latest in a long line of African-American victims of police violence, I have caught myself measuring my activities in sets of eight minutes and forty-six seconds. It is amazing how long that is- in that time, it turns out, I can whip up a lunch for a child, take a shower, tend to the growing plants in my garden, as Eric Garner must have done, before his life too ended in those desperate words: "I can't breathe."

There is an added layer of tragedy in seeing a man fight for breath in the middle of a pandemic that we first believed was a disease of the lungs, not through the vagaries of a virus but due to the deliberate exercise of violence. It is also a powerful reminder that the effects of this pandemic are disproportionately borne by those already marginalized in our societies. This was a guiding principle for our archiving project from the beginning: we know very little about the novel coronavirus and the devastating disease it has caused. Moreover, historical pandemics cannot tell us how, in this vastly different social, political, cultural, technological, demographic and environmental milieu, COVID-19 will play out. While making analogies from an event in one moment of time to another is problematic, the study of historical processes is useful in understanding the present. In past pandemics too, the inequalities of a society structured who bore the brunt of the disease. While the political effects of this could vary, the exacerbation of intolerable inequality by pandemics may have an effect in fomenting widespread social and political change.

To understand the racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes that has disproportionately taken African-American lives, as well as why protesters against racialized police brutality are treated so differently compared to armed militias demanding measures likely to accelerate the spread of the disease, we must think historically. In that spirit, I have updated our Resources page with a curated list of external sources, including emerging bodies of scientific knowledge on COVID-19, on social inequality and its effects on outcomes of the disease, and on thinking historically about this on-going pandemic. I have also included a link to a webinar I recently spoke at about this project as part of Georgetown University Press' Books for a Better World series. For educators planning courses that respond to our current circumstances that might adopt a project like ours, I hope this will be helpful.

In anguish and in the hopes that the most marginalized, most forgotten and most vulnerable among us will one day be able to breathe safely the air we all share,

Dr. Ananya Chakravarti

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