In their latest attack on public health policy during the pandemic, right-wing media are now bashing COVID-19 treatment guidelines that address racial disparities in risk for “severe” illness and death, falsely claiming they discriminate against white people.
Responding to disproportionately higher rates of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, some public health agencies have instructed doctors to consider race and ethnicity, among many other potential risk factors, when prescribing certain COVID-19 treatments, which are in short supply as case numbers spike.
Some right-wing media twisted the language in these memos to fit their false narrative that white people are being persecuted in the United States, a lie that 75% of Republicans now believe. Along with attacking “critical race theory” and immigrants, right-wing media have made unfounded claims of anti-white bias in COVID-19 treatment as part of an attempt to derail racial justice initiatives and incite a racist backlash.
Public health guidelines acknowledge systemic racism as potential risk factor for severe COVID-19
A December 27 memo from the New York State Department of Health authorized the use of two new COVID-19 treatments for patients with mild to moderate symptoms who meet age requirements and have an underlying health condition that increases their risk. The memo says, “Non-white race or Hispanic/Latino ethnicity should be considered a risk factor, as longstanding systemic health and social inequities have contributed to an increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.” Other states, including Utah and Minnesota, as well as local jurisdictions such as New York City, have also included race and ethnicity in their prescription guidelines for the treatments.
Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration has authorized the use of a drug called sotrovimab for patients over 12 who are at “high risk” for severe COVID-19. This includes people who are over 65, are pregnant, or have underlying conditions that heighten risk. The fact sheet states, “Other medical conditions or factors (for example, race or ethnicity) may also place individual patients at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19.”
None of these agencies prohibit white people from receiving the treatments if they meet the eligibility criteria. Nonetheless, many right-wing media outlets downplayed racial disparities in death rates due to systemic inequality and falsely claimed the guidelines leave out white people.
Conservative media downplay race as a risk factor while smearing Democrats for “race-baiting identity politics”
Responding to these guidelines from public health agencies, some right-wing media coverage dismissed considerations of race and claimed that class, age, and other factors are more important in determining risk of severe COVID-19, or claimed that considering race as a risk factor at all was racist or immoral. It is true that age and income are predictors of risk. However, arguments that race should be ignored in determining eligibility miss the specific impacts of racial discrimination that go beyond class, age, and other variables.
Systemic barriers to health care access, higher uninsurance rates, medical racism, environmental racism, income inequality, higher rates of poverty, housing disparities, employment discrimination, and the toxic stress racism causes all contribute to higher rates of COVID-19 hospitalization and death among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.
Racial health disparities cut across class, education, and other variables. For instance, college-educated Black men still experience lower life expectancies than college-educated white men. Middle-class Black Americans are exposed to more toxic pollutants that place them at higher risk of respiratory illness than very poor white Americans. Coverage arguing that race should never be considered in medical decision-making ignores the reality of these longstanding inequities.
- The Wall Street Journal published a January 7 op-ed with the misleading headline “New York’s Race-Based Preferential Covid Treatments: New guidelines say whites may not be eligible for antibodies and antivirals, while nonwhites are,” falsely implying that white people are not eligible for the treatments. The article accused “liberal political scientists” and “the Democrats who control New York” of using the new guidelines to “divide the country up by race and ethnicity.”
- Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren claimed on January 3 that policies including race as a risk factor amount to “race-baiting,“ declaring: “This is not progressivism. This is just lunacy. It is ridiculous. And, again, this is race-baiting identity politics, which is all the left has.”
- The New York Post published a January 2 op-ed arguing that “New York’s racial ‘risk factor’ for COVID treatment is illegal and immoral.” The piece stated that the new guidelines “may direct the medicines toward minority patients and away from sicker, more vulnerable white patients who would benefit more.”
- On January 3, Fox News anchor Dana Perino falsely claimed that New York City is “going to deprioritize people if they are white [for receiving new treatments] if they have symptoms.” Her guest, Fox contributor Marc Thiessen, added, “You can't factor race into who you give a vaccine to or who you don't, who you can provide treatments to and who you don't. It is unconstitutional, and it is racist. Quite frankly, this is critical race theory. This is literally critical race theory applied to public health, and it is disgusting.”
- In a January 10 segment on the FDA guidelines, Fox News medical analyst Dr. Marc Siegel told Perino that he found it “deeply disturbing to see this in New York state, Utah, and now the FDA coming out. If I try to order this drug, Paxlovid, it will ask what's the race of the person I'm ordering it for?”
- Fox News host Sean Hannity claimed on January 3 that the memo by “far-left state leaders” discriminates against white people, saying, “Making lifesaving health decisions based on race? Some might call that racism." Fox correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera argued that “this disease is not about race, it's about age.”
- On the January 11 edition of Fox & Friends, network contributor Leo Terrell likened the FDA guidelines to slavery and Jim Crow and accused the Biden administration of playing “the race card,” saying, “It's un-American. We do not distribute government services based on skin color. I think we fought a civil war against that regarding racial injustice. ... Any doctor who takes color or ethnicity into play is not a doctor.”
Right-wing media fearmonger about discrimination against white people as a “sadistic experiment” in “collective punishment”
Some right-wing media figures claimed that COVID-19 treatment policies mark the beginning of race-based health care discrimination, and that this discrimination targets white people. This argument is false. First, it ignores the longstanding history of health care exclusion and discrimination against people of color — especially Black and Indigenous people — that has existed since the beginning of the U.S. and persists to this day in various forms, with fatal results.
Second, it falsely positions white people as the victims of racism. This contradicts data showing that white people hold disproportionate power in the U.S. and fuels the white racial resentment that propels racist attacks and Republican political campaigns.
- In a January 10 segment on vaccine equity policies more broadly, Fox host Tucker Carlson said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to prioritize people of color for vaccines represented illegal discrimination against white people. He claimed without evidence that “whites would go last in the COVID vaccine queue, regardless of need,” declaring, “Race had become a deciding factor in the distribution of critical health care in this country.”
- The New York Post published a January 1 story titled “NYC will consider race when distributing life-saving COVID treatments” fearmongering about a hypothetical future where white people are persecuted: “It is unclear if the new ‘race’ guidance has yet to exclude whites from getting treatment, but observers and doctors fear that a system is being created that could lead to racial exclusions in the future during a drug shortage or case surge.”
- A January 6 article at The Federalist claimed that “New York City is turning health care into a veritable ‘Hunger Games’ as the race of its citizens is becoming a major consideration in the distribution of life-saving coronavirus drugs.” The piece continued, “In this iteration of the sadistic experiment, the NYC ‘game-makers’ are working to manipulate the arena to advantage racial minorities and disadvantage others. They call it ‘equity’ to cover up its real name: racial discrimination.”
- Former Trump official and architect of the administration’s child separation policy Stephen Miller appeared on Laura Ingraham’s January 10 Fox News show to claim that the New York City health department’s policy is “fascist” and push the white nationalist great replacement theory, saying, “If we don't push back and reclaim our heritage as a nation of legal equality, equal justice, we are going to lose everything that we love about America.”
- On January 11, Carlson lied that under the New York policy, white people “don’t qualify” for COVID-19 treatments. He bashed the equity measures in Minnesota and Utah, calling these and other similar guidelines “collective punishment” against white people and “the definition of evil.” He also railed against an imaginary undocumented Haitian immigrant who he claimed falsely would “get preference [for treatment] over an elderly American citizen,” implying that supposedly undeserving people of color could take away treatments from more deserving white people.