The U.S. Coronavirus Response Might Be a Crime Against Humanity

The Trump administration callously dismissed the deaths of the most vulnerable, including minorities.

By Noah Berlatsky, a freelance writer in Chicago.

JANUARY 19, 2021, 3:05 PM
The U.S. coronavirus response “is getting awfully close to genocide by default,” Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves tweeted last May—several hundred thousand deaths ago.

Gonsalves’s use of the term genocide is dramatic. But the scale of the death toll in the United States is on a par with genocidal actions of the past. Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine is believed to have killed 3.9 million Ukrainians over two years, 1932-33. The Irish famine resulted in 1 million deaths over seven years, from 1845 to 1852. Researchers at Columbia University compared the Trump administration response to COVID-19 to the response of other nations and estimated that the ineffective strategy in the United States resulted in 130,000 to 210,000 needless deaths over less than a year.

That study was released at the end of October, and since then U.S. numbers have only grown worse. There were about another 100,000 deaths in November and December combined, and as of today, the United States has lost just over 400,000 people. Some projections have the United States hitting 500,000 deaths by early February. Currently it looks like most people will need to wait months to receive vaccine shots, which means tens of thousands more are likely to die at the minimum before the virus starts to recede.

The numbers are stark: The virus has killed more Americans than died in the Vietnam War or in World War I. It’s also more people than died in many events that are well established as genocide. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks on the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 are estimated to have killed about 5,000 people in Halabja. The former Yugoslavia’s genocide of Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s saw about 8-10,000 of them in the Srebenica massacre, and around 100,000 dying in the war as a whole,

There’s unlikely to ever be an international trial of Trump officials for crimes against humanity or genocide. In that sense, the discussion is going to remain an academic one. But it’s worth thinking about genocide and the president’s response to emphasize that the administration is culpable for letting people die by the tens and hundreds of thousands.

The Trump administration has been culpable, at least in part, for a death toll on a genocidal scale. So, is Gonsalves right? Does it make sense to consider the Trump administration response to COVID-19 as a genocide?

The U.N. defines the crime of genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Acts which can be considered genocidal include “killing members of the group,” “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” or creating conditions designed to destroy the group.

For the U.N. and international prosecution of genocide, intent is important—there has to be evidence that a government set out deliberately to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. At first, at least, that might not seem to be the case in the United States, where the death toll has scythed through the whole country.

And yet, there is some evidence to suggest that the Trump administration did in fact intend to use COVID-19 to target certain political and racial groups. According to reporting from Vanity Fair, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner shelved a federal COVID-19 testing plan because he believed that the virus would mostly affect Democratic states, and the administration could then blame Democratic governors for deaths. Blue Democratic cities are disproportionately home to Black people and other minority populations. A federal plan to allow deaths in blue states inevitably and predictably disproportionately facilitated the deaths of Black people and other people of color.

These decisions, coupled with entrenched racist inequities in healthcare, led unsurprisingly to disproportionate outcomes. As of Jan. 5, Black death rates and Hispanic death rates from COVID-19 were 2.3-2.5 times those of white people, according to the CDC. Indigenous death rates were 2.2 times those of white people.

Jeffrey Ostler, professor of history at the University of Oregon and author of Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas, said that COVID-19 response could be seen as part of the history of genocide against native populations. A genocide, he said, usually implies a policy that has “some really serious impact on the ultimate health and well-being of the people.”