Before we get into the details, we want to take a moment to acknowledge the impact of reading this story. This story was difficult to write because it is happening right now and because it is about the communities we call home and the people we love. Before you read this, take a moment to think about how you want to take in this information. While all of the stories on this site have personal impacts, COVID-19 is different. It is happening right now in a broader, more immediate way than tuberculosis or smallpox. It has impacted everyone reading this, particularly those of you who work on the frontlines providing care, and those of you who have lost beloveds. Its impact is vast and layered: if you are Black, Indigenous, poor, living with a disability, or an elder, you are at a greater risk of the impact of this virus. So before we start telling one part of this story, we want to pause and remember that it is not just information.
In April of 2020, we decided to start paying close attention to COVID-19. We were working on the larger Stories of Care to Control Timeline, but as infections and deaths rose, and as many places went into lockdown, we realized that we needed to pause and pay attention to what we were experiencing. In particular, we wanted to pay close attention to how the more than 500 years that this timeline documents shaped our experiences and responses to xenophobia, racial capitalism, ableism, and fear of disease in so many tangible ways. We also wanted to track the mix of chaos, control, and contradiction present every single day. And finally, we wanted to honor and remember the many people who are living with Long COVID, recognizing that they are here, still living with the impact of this pandemic, whether it has officially “ended” or not.
The COVID-19 timeline is offered as part of this larger timeline because it helps highlight the continual small and large moments of action and inaction that define an unfolding crisis. We intend for it to help demonstrate the push and pull between mandates; resistance; community care; disagreement; marginalization; and the control and surveillance of our bodies, environments, and diseases that produce a moment of crisis.
The COVID-19 timeline is intersectional, focusing on impact rather than attempting to establish a final word on any of the many moments that created the pandemic. It is designed to show how the Medical Industrial Complex continues moving forward, and the resistance in response to the devastation it creates. The major themes we follow in this timeline include xenophobia & anti-Asian violence, racial health inequities, eugenic practices, the dallying of the State in responding to COVID-19, and how racial capitalism has used this moment of vulnerability to push its agendas and actions forward.
There is a fair amount of controversy over the impact of Trump’s early actions after he was elected president. People working in the National Security Council’s Pandemic Response Team talk about witnessing Trump disbanding the Team shortly after coming into office. Media fact-checkers assert that this was not completely true, that he defunded elements of the work but did not disband it entirely. Even with the discrepancy over details, it’s clear that Trump’s actions after his election deeply disempowered the capacity of the Pandemic Response Team to respond to COVID-19.
In 2019, Chinese health officials notified the World Health Organization about a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. This triggered a xenophobic, anti-Chinese response in the United States, even before the first case on U.S. soil was reported. This reactionary and racist blaming impacted all Asian communities, as acts of anti-Asian violence rapidly increased. The number of these incidents targeting Chinese and other Asian communities have not yet dropped at the time of writing. This strategy of blaming all Asian communities for an epidemic harkens back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when alarm about a “Yellow Peril” explicitly evoked blame towards East & Southeast Asian communities – Chinese people especially – for being “diseased” and “dangerous,” proliferating racist stereotypes across the media and everyday life. The racist and xenophobic response to COVID-19 is connected to multiple moments in history when anti-Asian violence and blame were used by public and private interests to avoid responsibility for a lack of preparedness, or as a response to widespread fear. This response is also connected to the fear of Asian countries “taking over” the United States’ global economic position and wealth.
As the pandemic continued to emerge, it became clear that COVID-19 cases had likely been in the U.S. since before the announcement from China. The first case in the United States was confirmed in January of 2020, and the first death shortly after. The U.S. then declared a public health emergency and almost immediately opted out of a partnership with global response strategies (especially with countries in the Global South), including refusing to purchase COVID-19 tests that were available outside of the United States long before they were ready for manufacture in the U.S.
Within a few months of the epidemic, reports began to identify and track the racism embedded in COVID-19 response protocols. Rubix Life Sciences, a biotech data firm, released a report in mid-2020 based on aggregated data showing the health disparities due to inequities in the treatment of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color for COVID-19. By looking at recent billing from several states, they were able to track which patients were offered a COVID-19 test and which were not. At this point, there were still no vaccines available, and tests and quarantine protocols were the only way to deter the spread of the virus.
At the same time, stay-at-home orders drove many unhoused people from shelters as the shelters closed, increasing the number of people with no safe place to stay. Stay-at-home orders particularly impacted people who were houseless, living in unstable housing, in group quarters — such as nursing homes and institutions — or in overcrowded and unsafe housing due to poverty, state-mandated institutions, and forced shut-in situations. Many older incarcerated people with underlying conditions, who had served substantial parts of their sentences and were no longer considered a “threat” to society, were released from prison but still held in home confinement.
Trump’s response to the collective pain and chaos was to create a culture of fear and exclusion by signing an Executive Order suspending immigration into the U.S., with some exceptions, for 60 days. He also suspended new green card applications. This action was a pared-down version of the immigration bans he attempted to pass during his first weeks in office, but this time, he introduced them under the guise of responding to a national security threat of disease. Meanwhile, Anti-Asian targeting and violence continued to increase. This rising trend of violence was stoked by Trump, who continued to refer to the virus as the "Chinese virus" and "Kung-flu” throughout his presidency.
In the middle of all of this, Trump appeared on national TV and announced that chlorine dioxide was a cure for COVID-19. Mark Grenon, the leader of the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, wrote to Trump days before, encouraging the use of his "Miracle Mineral Solution" (MMS) as a cure for COVID-19. Genesis II is the largest producer and distributor of chlorine dioxide bleach in the U.S. Grenon would be federally indicted in 2022 for fraudulent marketing of MMS to treat COVID-19, diabetes, autism, HIV/AIDS, and other serious medical conditions.
Everywhere, responses to COVID were shaped by racism, whether expressed through action or inaction. The Urban Indian Health Institute challenged the United States’ undercounting of Indigenous people, calling it data genocide. In most of the government’s forms of tracking the impact of COVID-19, Indigenous people had no specific category but were instead included in the category of “other.” Public health systems were accused of failing to report any data (or sufficient data) on COVID-19 rates for Indigenous people. Fourteen states failed to report on Native people altogether, and only three states consistently reported Native cases confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the inclusion of relevant racial data.
Research scientists began to ask if racism within Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms contributed to the high disparities in access to testing sites and in COVID-19 transmission rates among Black and Native people, as compared to white people in the U.S. They reflected that if an underserved population lacked access to COVID-19 testing, then that community might look as if it’s doing relatively well, even when it isn’t. This might then lead to an underestimation of the impact of COVID-19 in that community and fewer resources being allocated to them. This scenario also applied to multiple underserved communities that were not even included in these equations, such as people of Asian, Arab, and Latinx descent. The racism embedded within AI algorithms is the result of the racism of the programmers who first created these systems. Some forms of Artificial Intelligence also carry forward the belief (used as justification for enslavement) that Black people have a higher pain tolerance and lower needs for care.
The same racist lineages were highlighted as scientists began to raise concerns that standard “race adjustments” on spirometers, devices that measure lung capacity, may lead to misdiagnosis or affect treatment plans. The race adjustments on spirometers are based on the belief that Black people have naturally lower lung capacity. Black patients are therefore less likely to be referred to pulmonary rehabilitation than white patients and, even after years of complaints, the standard use of the spirometer continues to dangerously underestimate the impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown people.
Reports also began to surface outlining the lack of COVID-19 testing and data available for people with disabilities. While some testing and data were available for people living in institutions, these did not include those living with disabilities outside of institutions who experienced ableism, along with the lack of access to safe care within clinical and emergency settings. This lack of safe and accessible care was called “ICU-genics'' in posts circulating on social media at the time, as a way of naming and describing the horrible treatment of disabled people in Intensive Care Units (ICUs). Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha reflects on this in their book, The Future is Disabled, which tells the story of an organization that recommended that people create a one-pager about their lives to hang around their necks when hospitalized, in order to have content ready to convince doctors that their life is worth saving.
One in six people who have died from COVID-19 resided in some form of institution. Staff in multiple long-term care institutions have reported ongoing unsafe working conditions, which have contributed to the rise of infections as workers fell ill and were then in danger of passing the virus to patients. Additionally, barriers to COVID-19 testing, including transportation challenges and the inaccessibility of testing sites, led to delays in access to health care and worse outcomes for surviving the virus for people with disabilities.
As the epidemic continued and supplies in the United States began to run out, policies in 25 states rationed care for people with disabilities, including access to ventilators. Some state policies organized triage care by listing specific disabilities as reasons a COVID-19 patient should be de-prioritized for a ventilator or other health care support. This directive mandated that providers place their patients within a hierarchy of worthiness of care and expendability. Other states used vague language that pointed to the possibility of triage without establishing it as a direct requirement. Disability Justice activists pointed to this lack of response as a form of collective murder. Here we see a resurgence of old eugenic ways of organizing a medical system built on ableist, racist, and classist notions of care. These ongoing patterns are exactly what this COVID-19 timeline seeks to expose.
At Irwin County Detention Center in southern Georgia, Dawn Wooten (a Black nurse working there) raised concerns about the lack of COVID-19 protocol, inadequate medical care, and unsafe work practices faced by the immigrant and refugee communities at the detention center. Complaint documents were filed by a southern coalition of organizations, who led the “Shut Down Irwin Campaign,” which included: Project South, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Georgia Detention Watch, the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, and Detention Watch Network. The campaign detailed medical neglect at the Detention Center, including a refusal to test those who had been detained and those who had been exposed to COVID-19. Other documented complaints included the destruction of medical requests submitted by those who were detained, and the fabrication of medical records, alluding to care that was not given and results for tests that were never administered. Complaints also uncovered sterilization procedures that were coerced on detainees. A solidarity statement released by healers, health practitioners, and organizers in support of Ms. Wooten asked frontline healthcare workers to refuse to be complicit with the racism and exploitative conditions of institutions including psychiatric hospitals, detention centers, and prisons.
As has happened many times before, prisons became a site of experimentation as potential COVID-19 treatments were tested. For instance, beginning in November 2020, high doses of Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug often used on livestock, were given to four incarcerated men who’d contracted COVID-19 at Washington County Jail, in Arkansas, without their consent. The drug caused painful symptoms including cramping and bleeding. Ivermectin has become a popular COVID-19 at-home treatment heralded by many anti-vaccination advocates, including cohorts of Ivermectin-promoting physicians, despite warnings of its potential danger from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Epic Health Research examined the health record data for 50 million patients from 53 health systems in 399 hospitals across 21 states and found that COVID-19 infection rates among Latinx and Black patients were over three and two times higher, respectively, than the rate for white patients. Black, Latinx, and Asian patients also remained at a higher risk for hospitalization and death compared to white patients with similar sociodemographic characteristics and underlying health conditions. The researchers’ findings pointed to racism and discrimination as affecting health outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been shaped by environmental factors as well. Increases in COVID-19 death rates during the summers of 2020 and 2021 were linked to increased particulates in the air due to wildfires spreading across the Western U.S. Studies also showed a link between all forms of pollution and COVID-19 infection and between COVID-19 rates and lack of access to safe water. Low-income people, Black, Indigenous, Communities of Color, and people with disabilities are often subject to high levels of toxins in the air from landfills and corporate waste sites near their neighborhoods, which heightens the risk of death from COVID-19. Lack of clean water access on Native reservations and in poor Black communities led to higher COVID-19 infection rates in homes without indoor plumbing.
Big Data, Surveillance, Technology, and Corporate Profit
PredPol, the predictive policing corporation, proposed that police become the de facto public health officials to track COVID-19 in communities of color in Los Angeles (LA), CA. According to Predpol’s website as of the time of writing, "PredPol grew out of a research project between the Los Angeles Police Department and UCLA. The chief at the time, Bill Bratton, wanted to find a way to use COMPSTAT (short for computer statistics and used to gather stats and data for policing) data for more than just historical purposes" (PredPol, n.d.). They have since worked with mathematicians, data scientists, police officers, and crime analysts to identify crime "before it happens." During the COVID-19 pandemic, they proposed employing PredPol tactics for contact tracing in Communities of Color in Los Angeles. Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and Free Radicals published an article denouncing this proposal as a means of exploiting COVID-19 as an opportunity to push for expanded police budgets that would then result in the targeting and policing of the poorest, BIPOC neighborhoods in Los Angeles under the guise of national security. This harkens back to methods of surveillance rooted in white supremacy and colonization in the mid-18th century, including the Lantern Laws, which tracked Black and Indigenous people and people of mixed ancestry. The work of Stop LAPD, and others, successfully ended this alliance between PredPol and the LAPD.
As COVID-19 progressed, tech companies flooded the healthcare delivery market. Through the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, tech giants Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft all targeted opportunities for profit within the field of healthcare. In addition to developments in telehealth, tech companies released new biometric data monitoring tools and increased their involvement in medical supply distribution, hospital infrastructure, and electronic record management. Executives at 13 drug companies involved with vaccine research made close to $500 million dollars by selling off company shares while they were at an all-time high. The wealth of individual billionaires in the United States grew by over $2.1 billion or 70% during the early years of the pandemic (Collins, 2021). This wealth increased through a combination of corporate welfare and private investments in growing industries, such as those supporting online work, pharmaceutical research, and medical supplies. Meanwhile, half a billion people globally were pushed into poverty due to increased healthcare costs from COVID-19. The world reached the highest global poverty numbers since 1930 during the pandemic (Aljazeera, 2021).
The alliances between pharmaceutical companies and country governments to gather data for the production of COVID-19 vaccines also generated profits and created huge divides between the “haves” and “have-nots.” In particular, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals struck a deal with the Israeli government focused on the collection of medical data. The Israeli government stated that it promised Pfizer access to this data in order to track herd immunity, or the collective immunity that emerges when a certain percentage of the population has immunity from either previous infections or vaccination. Significant outcries from data privacy activists and Israel's own medical ethics board raised alarm about the dangers of releasing millions of people's private medical records. These allegations have included naming the Israeli government's unwillingness to provide vaccinations for Palestinians living within the State of Israel.
Despite reports to the contrary, COVID-19 is not gone. The World Health Organization warns of lingering COVID-19 symptoms in 1 out of 10 cases. More than a third of people with Long COVID have symptoms many months later (Neuman, 2021), making the number of people with Long COVID higher than previously thought. This particularly impacts people living with disabilities, including those with compromised immune systems. The coming years will reveal the long-term impact of COVID-19 on our bodies, environments, and spirits.
Coming Into the Present Moment: Resistance & Survival
Coming into the present moment begins with acknowledging the collective grief and rage that remains in our bodies and in our communities. COVID-19 has affected all of us and will continue to affect humanity for generations to come. Many, particularly frontline health workers, community organizers, and those living with the loss of loved ones (or impacts on their health) are still living in the middle of a pandemic that the media and government say has ended.
Coming into the present moment together also means recognizing the extent of resistance and protest. Just as our access is limited to detailed stories about how the Chinese community fought back against the xenophobic targeting during the Yellow Fever epidemics in the 19th century, we are also in danger of missing the stories of resistance from Asian and Pacific Islander communities who continue to fight back against xenophobic violence today. The website Stop AAPI Hate! continues to track incidents of hate violence, along with the increase in stress and tension within communities as a result of this continued targeting. In 2022 alone, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339 percent (Yam, 2022), on top of an increase in 2020 and 2021. There are many stories of resistance to this violence that are remembered within the community, but they are not widely understood as part of a larger constellation of care and survival. It is critical for us to collect as many of these stories as we can while the pandemic happens in real-time. Powerful movement building by Asian communities across the country has emerged and strengthened in response to xenophobic violence during COVID-19. Newer emergent Asian organizations including Grassroots Asian Rising, a “national alliance of grassroots organizations rooted in working class pan-Asian immigrant and refugee communities, focus on building collective power for the long term.”
Protests against the mismanagement of COVID-19 and protests against police violence wove together in 2020, as organizers made connections between the lack of adequate State response to infections and the impact of police violence as connected issues of collective safety. We collected as many of these stories as we could on this timeline, and we know that many are missing. We look forward to hearing them from you. We will also remember, and continue to tell, the stories of the upswing of mutual aid and collective care in our neighborhoods, communities, and organizations as we organized supply runs, medicine runs, safety teams, food trees, funeral funds, childcare, mental health support, vaccine distribution strategies and so on. These creative community-making responses speak to the spiritual and political impact of this moment. They are part of the indelible mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continue to demonstrate how resistance and collective care can build transformative futures.
This timeline shares stories of some of the many hunger strikes and other protests that spread among detention centers and prisons, including at the Northwest Detention Center in Washington and Folkson Processing Center in Georgia. We honor those who protested against the lack of safety procedures, for those incarcerated and for workers, along with the lack of attention to strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in detention centers and prisons.
We remember the many “Cancel the Rent” protests where local people called for rent cancellation for those without income during the COVID-19 quarantine. We witnessed how many of these protests made links between the impact of COVID-19 and the ongoing social context of poverty, demanding cancellations in the moment while also calling attention to the overall lack of affordable housing.
We saw many pop-up clinics and crisis centers emerge, including Healthcare for the People, which opened in three New York City parks. Healthcare for the People provided care for unhoused individuals at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and stands alongside many other abolitionist and community care practices, including EqualHealth, an organization that fights against global health inequities caused by racial capitalism. Many of these community strategies offered free clinics and general healthcare support for those concerned about the safety of institutional care settings, and for those without insurance or money to pay for private care.
We saw many healthcare providers and frontline workers risk their jobs by telling the truth about what they were seeing on social media, calling out the systemic irresponsibility and the collective disregard for their safety and the safety of their patients, and fighting back against those who believed that the pandemic was a hoax. Healthcare workers all over the country protested against the lack of proper safety protocols, and equipment, which put themselves and their patients in danger. This includes the seventy-five doctors in Florida who walked out in protest against those who chose to remain unvaccinated, and then contracted COVID-19 and turned to hospitals for support. Doctors walked out in order to encourage community members to get vaccinated, as a means of mitigating the high volume of COVID-19 patients ending up in their emergency rooms.
We honor the difficult and culturally-rooted decisions that members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Native communities made when they prioritized elder language speakers for receiving vaccines. Recognizing the high impact of COVID-19 on the elderly, they recognized the intensity of this impact on their culture holders, and the need to protect the history and wisdom held by their elders.
After generations of violent racist research, and experimentation, on the Black community by the Medical Industrial Complex, we honor the Black physicians and nurses who chose to step forward, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in support of vaccinations and medical care as necessary for their communities. We honor those who challenged the long arc of experimentation on Black communities through medical racism, ensuring that COVID-19 vaccinations were safely distributed and given consensually, and that information about the vaccine was transparent.
And we deeply honor the Disability Justice organizers and advocates who have fought, and continue to fight, against the minimizing of the impact of COVID-19 on people living with disabilities such as those organizing the campaign Not A Burden and the hashtag #NoBodyIsDisposable, demanding that the most high-risk communities should have the greatest access to the vaccine. We remember the painful irony as entire companies and organizations rapidly went to virtual employment structures to support stay-at-home mandates, a request that Disability Justice organizers had been making for years.
Creating the Conditions to Shift Histories
Epidemics are moments when we see the systems and supports that we have created and those we have neglected. Like any other crisis moment, they highlight how we do and don’t care for, and about, each other.
What makes COVID-19 different from past large-scale epidemics is the number of people with lived experiences of violence in the Medical Industrial Complex who are now working within these systems to change them. The internet and social media have made it easier to share these impact stories. While there is nothing new about the racist and eugenic violence embedded in the care systems shared in the first section of this piece, these stories have been disseminated in ways many of us have not seen before. This leaves us with the opportunity and the responsibility to work toward meaningful systemic change.
The purpose of this timeline is to show how these patterns have existed since colonization. The COVID-19 timeline, and this story, is the continuation of what started over five hundred years ago.
Shifting this history is not possible with reform. It requires abolition, and creation. Too many of the mutual aid and collective care networks that emerged over the course of the pandemic have since disappeared. Events are now being held without any precautions against spreading COVID-19, let alone other infections, making them inaccessible to people who are immunocompromised. The push to go back to work as the way to restore “normalcy” happened at the expense of people living with high risks, including long COVID and other chronic illnesses. The “normal" we are returning to did not work before and does not work now. It leaves out strategies for collective and individual intentional care, collective spaces for grieving, and reconsideration of what it means to live into our future.
Creating the conditions to shift how five hundred years of violent disregard of entire segments of our population are embedded in our systems means demanding care that is rooted in dignity and respect. We must fight for care that is comprehensive and culturally grounded, and weaves together a broad range of strategies that include safe housing, nourishing food, clean water, and treatments that are given with consent. It also means remembering that collective care includes collective safety and security.
**see COVID-19 timeline for additional sources
Al Jazeera. (2021, December 12). Pandemic health costs pushed half a billion people into poverty. Coronavirus Pandemic News | Al Jazeera. https://web.archive.org/web/20220217045851/https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/12/pandemic-health-costs-pushed-half-a-billion-people-into-poverty
Collins, C. (2021, Oct 18). U.S. Billionaires are Now $2.1 Trillion Richer Than Before the Pandemic. Inequality.org https://inequality.org/great-divide/billionaires-2-trillion-richer-than-before-pandemic/
Neuman, S. (2021, September 29). New Study Finds More Than A Third Of COVID-19 Patients Have Symptoms Months Later. NPR.org. https://web.archive.org/web/20220616070635/https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2021/09/29/1041501387/coronavirus-long-covid-study-plos-medicine
Piepzna-Samarasinha, L. L. (2022). The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs. arsenal pulp press.
PredPol. (n.d.) About. https://www.predpol.com/about/
Yam, K. (2022, Jan 31). Anti-Asian hate crimes increased 339 percent nationwide last year, report says. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/anti-asian-hate-crimes-increased-339-percent-nationwide-last-year-repo-rcna14282