By Karly Stilling
For months, newsfeeds have been filled with one horrible story after another.
It started in January with the pandemic: the virus that plagued China’s Wuhan district was spreading, popping up in Thailand, Japan, Germany, the U.S., France. Countries around the world began to impose travel restrictions, quarantine measures, lockdowns, shelter in place orders. The WHO declared a global pandemic, Trump declared a state of emergency, transmission numbers skyrocketed, and so did deaths. Coronavirus was everywhere.
Other stories made the news—Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race for presidential candidate, murder hornets were spotted on the West Coast—but rarely survived more than one 24-hour news cycle before it were back to pandemic, disease, death.
That is, until a video of an unarmed black man being forcibly restrained by a police officer kneeling on his neck while he begged for breath hit the news. The murder of George Floyd broke through the coronavirus clutter in May and reignited the Black Lives Matters movement that had begun in 2013.
Now, two months on, BLM marches steadily onwards—but gets less air time.
COVID-19 is spreading quickly in the U.S.—but public interest has lagged.
On an individual level, most of us still care deeply about these issues—so why is it so easy to let them slip out of view?
We know that George Floyd was not the first unarmed black person to be killed by police in America during the pandemic. On March 13th, Breonna Taylor was shot dead in her sleep by police in Louisville, Kentucky.
That was the same day that President Trump declared a state of emergency over COVID-19. The next day, March 14th, the economic relief bill was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. Throughout the end of March, news headlines in the U.S. and around the world were dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. How many were dying, how many might die, how not to become one of them. Breonna Taylor’s death, and to some extent Ahmaud Arbery’s (who was killed by two civilians while out jogging in February), were overshadowed by the constant, terrifying news of the global pandemic.
Here in the UK where I live, we watched endless talk of Brexit quickly become subsumed by news of COVID-19 and the national lockdown. When Breonna Taylor was murdered, I didn’t hear about it. I didn’t hear about it, in fact, until after the killings of Arbery on February 23rd and Floyd on May 25th—and even then, it wasn’t through local or international media, it was through friends on Facebook. I started paying closer attention and I began to seek out these stories. What else have I been missing?, I started to wonder.
When George Floyd was killed, something powerful happened. People paid attention, and this time it was somehow different than with Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Maybe it was that over the months of isolation at home, we became used to seeing the people we love and care about most over screens—so when the footage of George Floyd’s murder popped up on social news feeds, it felt somehow closer than ever before.
Maybe it was that, in the months of staying home, wearing a mask, and washing our hands, we’d seen how our actions as individuals could collectively build to something meaningful.
Maybe it was that because of the pandemic, many of us had the time to give to caring about the cause, and doing something about it.
Maybe it was that minority communities across the Western world had spent the months of lockdown hearing how much more likely they were to catch the virus, and how much more likely there were to die if they did.
Whatever it was, people the world over were galvanized into action and generations of deep grief became inescapably visible in a way that it hasn’t been since the beating of Rodney King in 1992.
These two threads—COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter—are pieces of the same tapestry. In an opinion piece for Alabama’s AL.com, journalist Kyle Whitmire writes, “[i]t’s tempting to see the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement as competing issues dueling for our collective attention. But they’re not. If you lay both stories on top of each other to see how they overlap, you will see they’re not so unrelated. Their edges line up very well.”
He goes on to point out, “Racism kills in many ways. It kills through police brutality. It kills through lack of health care. It kills with bullets. It kills with toxins, pathogens and disease. It smothers its victims until they can’t breathe, either by a knee on their necks or a virus in their lungs.”
He’s right—but his stance is not one we see often in the way these stories are being reported, and we know that the way news stories come into the public consciousness matters. As Hannah’s piece last week pointed out, the Spanish Flu that broke out across the world during WWI didn’t originate in Spain—their press were just the only ones willing to talk about it. Everyone else was too scared of showing weakness to their enemies or lowering morale to admit they had a problem, and now we call the flu of 1918 the ‘Spanish’ flu.
When we look back at this time in history, we’ll remember COVID-19 like we remember the Spanish flu—but will we have enough awareness to see that the pandemic and BLM are as linked as the Spanish flu and WWI?
And will we remember BLM like we remember the civil rights movement of the 60s? That movement took off in 1955 with Rosa Parks, but didn’t end until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968. Will there be enough change in the coming years for history to be able to draw a line back to the death of George Floyd and say ‘this is where it started’?
A recent report from Digital Trends shows that interest in the coronavirus has waned in the U.S., with the numbers of online COVID-related searches plummeting. But a virus doesn’t care if we’re interested in it or not—it will keep coming for us, keep killing people, even if we’ve grown bored of hearing about it.
And the other pandemic the Western world is fighting—systemic racism—isn’t going anywhere, either. It’s going to keep killing people in both the overt ways we know and the covert ways many of us are only just starting to grapple with.
The challenge now facing all of us is how to keep our interest in these issues active despite our content exhaustion. Nowhere is this more clear than in the U.S., where coronavirus cases are surging in many states yet people have collectively lost interest, and where the systemic racism that took decades to solidify into entrenched and immovable social and governmental structures has not suffered more than a few toppled statues as a setback.
The fight to save lives on both fronts is just beginning. We need to keep paying attention.