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.
Candy Boyd, owner of the Boyd Funeral home, speaks during an interview next to an empty casket and cabinets built for expanded storage capacity of embalmed bodies awaiting burial due to the surge of Covid-19 deaths on Jan. 14, 2021 in Los Angeles.
Candy Boyd, owner of the Boyd Funeral home, speaks during an interview next to an empty casket and cabinets built for expanded storage capacity of embalmed bodies awaiting burial due to the surge of Covid-19 deaths on Jan. 14, 2021 in Los Angeles. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

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.”

Even hundreds of thousands of deaths are not really a threat to the existence of America as a whole, he told me by phone. But looking at the rates of infection and death among Black and native people, “that seems to be to be more open for discussion at this point, particularly in light of the fact that those communities have been subjected to genocidal processes in the past.”

Still, Ostler is reluctant to see the U.S. response as a genocide. And it’s not hard to understand that reluctance; though there’s been some deliberate exposure of particular groups, and some evidence of genocidal outcomes, it’s hard to fit the two together into a targeted effort to exterminate particular groups of people via deliberate negligence, as with Stalin’s policy of starvation in Ukraine in the 1930s.

The British reaction to the Irish potato famine seems more analogous. An ideological opposition to government aid in general, coupled with incompetence, exacerbated a serious national disaster. The result was massive avoidable loss of life, and an ongoing debate about whether to categorize the British response as genocidal.

Adam Jones, a political scientist who studies genocide at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, was also leery of framing the Trump administration response to COVID-19 as a case of genocide. He instead suggested applying the broader concept of crimes against humanity.

“There are a range of crimes against humanity, but the most relevant one here is ‘extermination,’ the definition of which draws upon Article 2(c) of the Genocide Convention: ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,’” Jones told me by email. Crimes against humanity can be “indirect and structural but no less intentional for that,” he said.

One benefit of using the concept of crimes against humanity is that it includes groups that aren’t generally covered by the language of genocide.

For example, in the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump has repeatedly argued that it doesn’t matter if the disease kills the elderly or those with certain health conditions. “You know, in some states, thousands of people, nobody young. Below the age of 18, like, nobody. They have a strong immune system, who knows? You look—take your hat off to the young because they have a hell of an immune system. But it affects virtually nobody.”

The national and local lack of concern with the elderly and disabled has been reflected in nursing home deaths. Residents account for about 1 percent of the U.S. population but nearly 40 percent of deaths from COVID-19. People with preexisting conditions are also especially vulnerable.

For the purposes of defining a genocide, the elderly and those with preexisting conditions are not generally considered a people, a race, or an ethnic group. But the Nazi murder of people with disabilities is well established as part of that regime’s record of atrocities. The administration’s downplaying of the dangers of COVID-19 because it primarily affects older people and those with health problems has justified reduced safety measures and resulted in out-of-control spread in nursing homes. That could be considered malignant negligence, and evidence of a crime against humanity.

Even if it’s difficult to make the case for genocide, many things said by Trump and his minions embrace genocidal logic. Whether or not the administration intentionally targeted Black people or the elderly, it has justified inaction and horrific outcomes by suggesting that the lives of some people—those in blue states, the elderly, the disabled—are less important, or more disposable, than the lives of other people. That logic isn’t always genocidal—but it’s a prerequisite for genocide.

Trump and the Republican party spent a year encouraging their voters to disregard and shrug off the deaths of partisan opponents, or of those seen as weak or unworthy. This kind of ideological callousness may not be genocidal in and of itself. But it points the way towards the justification of further death, whether by pandemic or other means. Having one of the two major parties regularly flirting with justifications for mass death doesn’t bode well for the future.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.