If you give a damn about racial injustice, it’s time to wear the mask.
When the world erupts in reaction to videos that surface on social media of police brutally murdering people of color, it’s very easy to point your finger at the image of a white man kneeling on a Black man’s neck and say: “That’s racism.”
It’s uplifting to see such blatant acts of discrimination and cruelty being given international attention, and being used as grounds for fighting systemic racism in our policing systems and prison-industrial complexes. However, it is important to recognize in tandem how racism is playing out in other less noticeable yet more insidious ways.
As white society pats itself on the back for doing things like removing racist language and imagery from the media, removing symbols of hate from city displays and state flags, and calling out or “cancelling” people or groups that have made racially insensitive comments — the racism that needs to be dismantled more than band names and brand names is the racism playing out in the coronavirus pandemic.
Racism and COVID-19
The fact of the matter is — if you didn’t already know or realize that white people are given an unfair advantage in America today, and that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are systematically pushed to the side — you will once you look at the COVID-19 numbers.
According to reporting from APM Research Lab, which independently compiled mortality data for 45 states plus Washington D.C., the latest overall COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is about 2.3 times as high as the rate for their white counterparts.  In addition, NPR conducted an analysis of 48 states plus Washington D.C., and found that Black American deaths from COVID-19 are almost two times greater than what they should be based on how many Black Americans there are in the country. 
Distribution by race is a really important metric to look at before you start comparing anything by race. If truly “all lives matter” or our society is “colorblind,” then the rates of coronavirus among white people and Black people would be equally distributed to how many of each there were. For instance, 13% of the U.S. population is Black. That should mean that 13% of the known coronavirus deaths should belong to Black people. This is not the case. According to data published by the CDC, approximately one in four people who have died due to COVID-19 are Black.  This means that Black people are dying from the virus at roughly twice their population share.
The same disproportionate negative outcome can be said for the Hispanic/Latino population as well. According to NPR, 42 states plus Washington D.C. see Hispanics/Latinos making up a bigger proportion of confirmed cases than their population share. In eight of these states, this proportion is more than four times greater.
How can anyone say “All Lives Matter” today when BIPOC populations are so undervalued as to be dying at a rate much, much higher than white society’s?
There are three main reasons why BIPOC are more likely than their white counterparts to both catch the virus and lose their lives to it: exposure, susceptibility, and social determinants.
Coronavirus is believed to be spread mainly from person to person. Right now, without a vaccine, the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed. For some of us, the transition into a quarantined life was difficult, yet attainable: we see office workers shifting to telework status, teachers doing what they can to provide an education over video conferencing, and people making use of grocery delivery in order to avoid going out altogether.
But for many BIPOC, working from home and getting grocery delivery is simply not an option.
“If you’re out and about and exposed to other people, the odds of you… being infected are much higher,” says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.  “So that means people who are in public-facing jobs… bus drivers, grocery store clerks, people that are working in hotels. People who have to take public transportation wherever they go are much more likely to be exposed and are therefore much more likely to get sick.”
According to the CDC, nearly 25% of employed Hispanic or Black workers are employed in service industry jobs, compared to 16% of whites. In addition, African-Americans make up 12% of all employed workers, but account for 30% of nursing jobs. Many BIPOC work in essential industries and do not have the luxury of being able to work from home.
In addition to being more likely to be exposed, BIPOC are also more susceptible to severe reactions to COVID-19 due to the likelihood of having preexisting health conditions.
“Rates of hypertension and diabetes are much higher in minority communities… That has a lot to do with the same reasons that people are more likely to get sick, which are the conditions of their environment — not having access to healthy food, overcrowding, frankly even the policing issues that have come out — which contributes to the stress that people live under,” says Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  “All of these things make people have a sicker baseline, which could lead to a serious COVID infection.”
It’s not just a sicker baseline — it’s also access to healthcare. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, both Hispanics/Latinos and Black Americans are at least twice as likely to be uninsured as their white counterparts. 
Both exposure and susceptibility to the virus are often influenced by social determinants of health. Social determinants refer to the conditions in which people work and live. How many people live in your house? How many people do you work with? How much exercise do you get on a daily basis? How much access do you have to healthy food? All of these questions are good examples of factors that could play a role in how likely you are to get infected, and how likely that infection can lead to serious consequences.
“One thing we’ve learned about a disease is that it spreads very easily within a home,” says Dr. Maimuna Majumder, faculty at the Computational Health Informatics Program based at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.  “If you have a densely populated home, or if you have multigenerational housing which is very, very true for people of color, especially in the United States, then you have increased vulnerability.”
According to the CDC, BIPOC may be more likely to live in densely populated areas.  The CDC references institutionalized racist practices, such as residential housing segregation, as a reason for this. 
“It’s certainly true that particularly African-Amercians are both more likely to get sick and to have serious outcomes, including death,” says Dr. Sharfstein.“The fact is that low-income communities have less ability to safely distance from other people, either because there is crowding where they are living, or they don’t have resources to have enough food at home, they have to go out again and again and again.”
Wear the Mask
So what can you do?
The answer is quite simple. Wear the mask. When you’re in public, keep away from other people as much as you can.
Recent studies show that many people who have COVID-19 lack symptoms and can still transmit the virus to others. The CDC recommends that people wear masks in public in order to prevent the spread of the virus — especially for those who are at a higher risk of severe illness and essential workers who are in contact with people quite often.  Many BIPOC fall into either or both of these two categories.
To not wear a mask because you don’t think it will affect anyone (or at least, anyone you care about) is a blatant example of privilege. Ask yourself, if you or a loved one were more likely to die from this virus — would you be so reckless and inconsiderate to not even wear the mask?
And if you are a believer of the Black Lives Matter movement but are careless in public during a pandemic — then you still have a long way to go before you can claim that you are a champion for racial justice.
1. “COVID-19 Deaths Analyzed by Race and Ethnicity.” APM Research Lab, www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.
2. Godoy, Maria, and Daniel Wood. “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?” NPR, NPR, 30 May 2020, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/05/30/865413079/what-do-coronavirus-racial-disparities-look-like-state-by-state.
3. “COVID-19 Provisional Counts — Weekly Updates by Select Demographic and Geographic Characteristics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 July 2020, www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm.
4. Benjamin, Georges. Interview. June 26, 2020.
5. Sharfstein, Joshua. Interview. June 23, 2020.
6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Report 1082, Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2018. October 2019. https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/race-and-ethnicity/2018/home.htm.
7. Majumder, Maimuna. Interview. June 26, 2020.
8. Hearst MO, Oakes JM, Johnson PJ. The effect of racial residential segregation on black infant mortality. Am J Epidemiol 2008;168(11):1247–54.
9. Jackson SA, Anderson RT, Johnson NJ, Sorlie PD. The relation of residential segregation to all-cause mortality: a study in black and white. Am J Public Health 2000;90(4):615–7.
10. “COVID-19: Considerations for Wearing Cloth Face Coverings.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 June 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html.