Medical Apartheid: Structural racism, not race by Nada Elia

The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is republishing the following article, originally on Mondoweiss, by Palestinian scholar and activist Nada Elia:

by Nada Elia

When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached the United States a little over one year ago, grassroots organizers as well as many health providers, especially of color, immediately noted that even though the virus itself is an “equal opportunity” one it will impact different communities differently, exacerbating rather than minimizing the health disparities created by different socio-economic circumstances. Pre-existing health conditions and overall well being play a significant part in an individual’s capacity to fend off illness. In the US, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, and obesity, which result in poorer prognostics once a person is infected with COVID-19, are chronic conditions that disproportionately affect minority populations. Indeed, these worst fears were soon proven right, as headlines such as “Communities of color devastated by COVID-19” became a daily instance, from New Orleans to New York. Yet even as Indigenous, Black, and brown communities were disproportionately impacted by the virus, they received, and continue to receive vaccinations at a much lower rate than white Americans–part of longstanding inequalities in healthcare access.

The pre-existing health conditions, just as the socio-economic disparities, are a result of structural racism, not race. There are no “genetic” factors that predispose Blacks and other Indigenous peoples to asthma, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, rather it is poor diet as a consequence of poverty, along with environmental racism, and living in food deserts, that result in these conditions.

That recognition was the subject of an early address by Dr. Anthony Fauci in April of last year, as he spoke from the White House, at a COVID-19 press briefing then-President Trump had exited midway.  And Fauci’s comments, as well as his leadership throughout the pandemic, earned him the Dan David Prize, in part for “speaking truth to power” during the politicized health crisis.

Yet acceptance of that prize, with its generous one-million dollar award, is itself highly problematic.  One of the most prestigious Israeli awards, sometimes dubbed “the Jewish Nobel,” the Dan David prize is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, and has long been a target of cultural boycott based on the BDS guidelines issued by the Palestinian Boycott National Committee. When the 2021 laureates were announced, USACBI issued a statement urging Fauci and his co-laureates to reject the prize, explaining that:

“Acceptance of this prize legitimizes Israel’s  widely condemned policy of denying COVID-19 vaccines to over 5 million Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As the occupier of these Palestinian lands, Israel has the legal responsibility under the Fourth Geneva Convention to provide necessary mechanisms to “combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.” Instead, Israel is actively blocking the delivery of vaccines to Palestinians under occupation. Meanwhile, it is engaging in “vaccine diplomacy” with states that have supported its international attacks on Palestinian rights, including Hungary and the Czech Republic. Israel is providing extra doses to these states while Palestinians face soaring COVID-19 rates and renewed lockdowns.”

Israel has so far offered vaccines to the Czech Republic, Honduras, and Guatemala, all countries that have moved, or indicated plans to move, their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel’s medical apartheid was called out in an historic letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, signed by twelve members of congress, which points to Israel’s abdication of its legal responsibility to provide vaccines to the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

USACBI is one of the organizations that co-sponsored a webinar organized by the Invest in Justice coalition, which featured scholars and health care providers discussing Israel’s medical apartheid, and also urging Dr. Fauci to reject the Dan David Prize.  A letter (discussed at 23:04 in the webinar) that the coalition plans to deliver to Fauci before the virtual ceremony at which the award will be offered, in May 2021, makes three concrete demands of Dr Fauci, namely:

  1. Demand the right to healthcare for the Palestinian people and affirm Israel’s obligation to provide them with access to COVID-19 vaccines
  2. To refuse complicity with Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and REJECT the Dan David Prize, an Israeli prize that is a longstanding boycott target for its whitewashing–we might even say culture-washing– of Israeli apartheid against Palestinians, including medical apartheid today
  3. To advocate for racially just health policies in the US and everywhere, including the Movement for Black Lives’ COVID-19 platform

Access to health care, just like this pandemic, must be global.  Dr. Fauci’s denunciation of disparities in medical access in the US will sound hollow if he accepts a prize from a country that is denying people under its illegal military occupation access to life-saving vaccines, while bribing allies with the extra doses. And whether Dr. Fauci heeds the Palestinian call for BDS or not, all of us must join the chorus of voices asking that we learn from this pandemic, and do our best to call for an end to medical apartheid from the US to Palestine.

I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t postscript this article with a note about the dynamics of alliance work.  Readers of Mondoweiss may recall that, on March 1, this website published an Open Letter by the Jewish Voice for Peace Health Advisory Council asking Dr. Fauci to donate a portion of the Dan David Prize to Palestinians. I remember my own recoil as I read the letter, which felt like a betrayal, and certainly out of line with JVP’s stated commitment to BDS. I know some members of the JVP HAC personally, so I reached out to one of them and explained that the letter is misguided, since accepting the Dan David Prize, even if one donates a portion of the money to a great cause, violates the BDS call.  My friend immediately responded indicating that they were not aware that the prize was problematic, but that they would discuss the matter at the next HAC meeting. Then they published another letter, retracting the demand that Dr. Fauci donate a portion of the prize, and asking him instead to reject it altogether.

I recount this here to highlight two separate issues.  First is the fact that Palestinians have long insisted on being consulted in any matters involving us, and this was one example of why this is so critically important.  The JVP HAC is fully on board BDS, yet they had formulated a letter about a situation impacting Palestinians, without consulting Palestinians, which violates the Palestinian call for BDS. Second, I do want to express my appreciation and gratitude for JVP HAC. When I reached out, I was met with humility and genuine concern, rather than dismissal and a cavalier “well it’s too late, and besides, Fauci probably won’t respond to us.” Alliance work can be messy, good intentions alone are no guarantee that an initiative is appropriate, and Palestinians have a very long list of examples of misguided actions by would-be allies who think they know better, but ultimately, JVP HAC proved to be a reliable ally.

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