Accidentally spreading Covid-19 is wanting grandma dead, say opponents of ending lockdowns. Yet activists now worry that proposed laws to punish those who threaten to spread it deliberately would discriminate against minorities.
A Florida man spat and coughed on a police officer responding to a domestic violence call, and faces up to five years in prison on a federal charge of biological weapons hoax (he was negative for Covid-19). Another man in Texas, who falsely claimed on Facebook he paid someone to spread the virus at local grocery stores, was charged with the same thing. A Michigan man who wiped his face with a store employee’s shirt might get three months in jail and a $500 fine for misdemeanor assault and battery.
These are just some of the recent incidents across the US highlighted by Reuters, as Covid-19 lockdowns – originally intended to last for two weeks – have stretched to two months, with some jurisdictions saying they wanted to extend them indefinitely.
One of the harsh lockdown states, New Jersey, is among the first to consider criminalizing a “credible threat to infect another with Covid-19 or similar infectious disease that triggered public emergency,” said a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Republican senator Kristin Corrado’s bill, which envisions up to 10 years behind bars and a $150,000 fine, is currently being debated in committee.
Reuters notes that the prospect has raised concerns from LGBTQ advocates, who say that the similar criminalization of deliberately spreading HIV by 26 US states over the past four decades has been based on “negative stereotypes” and discriminates against minorities and the poor.
The agency reached out to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law, which has produced several studies showing that HIV laws “targeted minorities.”
Covid-19 is primarily lethal to the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, said Brad Sears, associate dean of Public Interest Law. However, the virus is also disproportionately infecting the poor and minority communities.
“That could increase the risk that state legislatures pass criminal laws to kind of scapegoat the very people who need to be protected,” Sears said.
In 2017, the Democrat-dominated California legislature downgraded purposefully infecting someone with HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor, as advocates argued the “draconian” law “disproportionately harmed people of color and transgender women.”
In 2020, the same state banned going to the beach or running a business, due to the coronavirus threat. These draconian measures now affect some 40 million Californians.
In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a detailed ban on “non-essential” activity, then told protesters she would keep extending the lockdown until they submit. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo argued in late April that the virus is certain death and that those refusing to stay at home wanted to murder his family.
Meanwhile, even as they placed millions of law-abiding citizens under de facto house arrest, numerous jurisdictions across the US emptied their jails and prisons, saying they wanted to protect inmates from infection.
Over 1.4 million Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus so far, and almost 86,000 have died. The lockdowns have put over 36 million people out of work – compared to 15 million during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
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