Barack Obama indirectly criticised his successor Donald Trump during a virtual graduation ceremony on Saturday, in a rare public judgment from the former US president during the coronavirus pandemic.

"More than anything this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they're doing," Mr Obama told graduates from several dozen historically black colleges and universities.

"A lot of them aren't even pretending to be in charge."

He made the comments as he discussed the implications of the pandemic during the online event, without naming any specific leaders.

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Obama has kept a low profile since leaving office in January 2017 and rarely speaks out publicly.

On Saturday, he also highlighted how the health crisis has underscored racial inequality in America, and expressed outrage at the shooting death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, killed on February 23 while out for a jog in Georgia.

"A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country," he said.

"We see it in the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on our communities. Just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question, and shoot him, if he doesn't submit to their question."

Obama later spoke at a second ceremony; this one a star-studded prime-time event for high school students who are missing out on graduation pomp because of coronavirus.

Obama continued along the same lines, telling students to step up where leaders had failed.

"If the world is going to get better, it's going to be up to you," he said.

"Doing what feels good, what's convenient, what's easy - that's how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way - which is why things are so screwed up.

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"I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others."

The ceremony, carried by all the major American television networks, flashed between stirring speeches and performances students and celebrities alike, including basketball superstar Lebron James and singers the Jonas Brothers.

Because of the global health crisis, traditional American high school and university graduation ceremonies, a popular rite of passage, are out of the question.

So virtual ceremonies are taking their place.

"I've always loved joining commencements - the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice," Obama wrote on Twitter earlier this month.

In keeping with tradition, America's first black president has up until now avoided publicly criticising his successor, despite frequently being attacked by Trump.

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Former US President, Barack Obama, lashes out at President Trump saying the US Covid-19 response has been a ‘chaotic disaster’. Video / Yahoo News

But earlier this month, in remarks leaked from a web call with people who worked in his administration, he called Trump's handling of the pandemic a catastrophe.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

"It would have been bad even with the best of governments. It has been an absolute chaotic disaster when that mindset - of 'what's in it for me' and 'to heck with everybody else' - when that mindset is operationalised in our government," he said in that call.

The US leads the world with coronavirus cases and deaths, at 1.4 million and nearly 90,000, respectively.

As this year's graduates enter a new chapter in life, they face a grim reality: the US unemployment rate has suddenly shot up to nearly 15 per cent and more than 36 million people have filed for unemployment benefits as America grapples with the fallout from months of lockdown and business closings.