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Are Black People Really Safe From Coronavirus Because of Melanin?

How fake news helped this strange (and utterly false) coronavirus myth spin out of control

As fear of the deadly coronavirus has gripped the globe, there has been one rather vocal section of the world, at least online, that’s reveling in their presumed safety from the dreaded disease. You see, over on Black Twitter, folks are boasting that Black people are naturally safe from infection because we have melanin… and also ginger ale.

So, um, where did all these ill-founded health rumors start? And why would Black people possibly think that our melanin is like teflon from viral infection? 

For starters, if you check this interactive map from the New York Times that tracks the spread of the virus, you’ll notice a few areas that have no known infections. You’ll also notice that those same areas have something else in common: They’re places where people with lots of melanin live. You put one and one together, and boom, now you have the beginnings of a quasi-scientific opinion based on an obvious observation. 

But really, all it took was one fake news story from Valentine’s Day for the hoteps on Facebook and Twitter to flood their feeds with this wave of disinformation. That article, from a website called CityScrollz and which has since been deleted, was later repurposed and has reappeared in more professional-appearing posts, like this one, which features the gripping headline “Chinese Doctor Says African Skin Resists Coronavirus.” 

A second-wave clickbait news story was published on February 16th by the Zambian Observer. Until yesterday, I’d never heard of this news site, but whatever it is, its reporting on why melanin protects Black people from coronavirus isn’t just factually challenged, it’s a dangerous lie. For instance, consider the scientific acumen of this choice passage [sic throughout]:

“The Chinese doctors confirmed that Senou stayed alive because of his blood genetic composition which is mainly found in the genetic composition of subsaharan Africans. Chinese doctors also said that he remained alive because he has black skin, the antibodies of a black are three times stronger, powerful and resistant compared to that of a white.

“Zanomoya Mditshwa, an African, shared his opinion saying black man is indestructible. ‘Caucasians is always at war with our black skin because they know our melanin is our defense against all that they throw at us. This proves yet again that the black man is indestructible, our bodies are made of the same substances that make up this Earth because we are owners of this universe they will never wipe us off, history has already proved that,’ he said.”

While “news” stories like this are good for a laugh, like all ignorance, they also pose a serious health risk. And this rumor has been spreading online about as quickly as the virus has been bouncing across real-world borders. 

The wrongheaded notion of “melanated protection” has become so commonplace Snopes had to step in to debunk it. The Associated Press Fact Check also did its journalistic due diligence to disrupt the rumor’s spread. Meanwhile, the AFP spoke with Amadou Alpha Sall, the director of the Institut Pasteur in Senegal. The institute is a research center that’s been analyzing the infection profiles of possible patients in Sub-Saharan Africa. He attempted to clear the haze of confusion by saying, “There’s no scientific evidence to support this rumor. Ethnicity and genetics have no influence on recovery from the virus, and Black people don’t have more antibodies than white people.”

There is one part of this story that’s real: Senou, the Cameroonian patient referred to. And how he was returned to full health after contracting coronavirus is the story that people should actually know — even if it’s not as funny. 

As the BBC originally reported, Senou is a 21-year-old student from Cameroon who lives and studies in Jingzhou, China. Having previously contracted malaria as a child, Senou was legit scared when he was convinced that he’d contracted the novel coronavirus. He told the BBC, “When I was going to the hospital for the first time, I was thinking about my death and how I thought it was going to happen.” For his treatment, Chinese doctors didn’t rely on his melanin to beat the virus, nor did they trust that his “black antibodies [were] three times stronger, powerful and resistant”; instead, they gave him antibiotics and drugs usually prescribed to patients battling HIV. 

Two weeks of medical attention later and Senou was declared to have fully recovered. His medical treatment was fully paid for by the Chinese government. This fact alone would appear to be far more important and integral to his recovery than any racialized strength of his antibodies.

Then, late last week, there was even more news that should have upset the narrative that Black people’s melanin somehow makes us naturally immune to coronavirus. That is, the first patient in Sub-Saharan Africa was diagnosed after contracting the semi-deadly illness. The victim was reported in Nigeria. Except there’s a catch: The patient isn’t Black. According to the New York Times, he’s reportedly an Italian national who works in Nigeria. Not to mention, he’d just returned to the country from a trip to Milan, which means that there’s still no official cases of a Sub-Saharan African who has contracted coronavirus. 

Interestingly, another large geographic area filled with brown people of all shades — India — has also been largely immune to coronavirus, despite the fact that it borders China for 2,167 miles. But again, according to the Economic Times, this probably has more to do with the country’s supply chain (unlike its neighbors, India has been very reluctant to rely on Chinese commerce) than the color of its populace’s skin. After all, the Chinese epicenter of the viral outbreak is Wuhan, a heavily industrial city, whose products ship globally. But India isn’t buying much. If you consider how the virus has hit rural Iran, packaging of Chinese goods would make a lot of sense as a disease vector — and be far more productive to consider than “melanin protection.” 

Because in tough, ever-evolving cases like these, the answer is hardly ever skin-deep.