COVID-19 unmasked: the correlation between preventative measures and race in the United States

Ever since the novel coronavirus outbreak, people across the country have rushed to stores to buy supplies like thermometers, gloves and medical masks. Almost every person I saw at the grocery store or in Times Square had a mask on. Shortly after the outbreak began to escalate, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a statement claiming that if you are not sick, wearing a mask can cause more harm than good to your lungs. 

My mother, on the other hand, did not care. She insisted that if we ventured outside, we should wear a covering over our mouths and noses, whether that be a scarf or a bandana. She was ecstatic to learn that the CDC recommended people wear a cloth face covering to help stop the spread earlier this month. The thing my mom didn’t realize is that wearing a scarf or bandana over our faces increases the risk of racial profiling exponentially. Unfortunately, the fear that my twin brother and I have is shared by millions of African Americans around the country. These are the fears that African Americans must constantly face: where we can go, how we can show up, what we can wear, what we can say – it never ends.

I wish that this fear was unfounded, but it is not. The simple fact is that as an African American male in the United States, I am not able to wear a bandana over my face because I will be accused of being in a gang. I cannot wear a cloth covering and walk into a supermarket without the fear of the cops being called. 

On Easter evening at around 9 p.m., my siblings and I left the house to go buy some essential items like toilet paper and water. We were fully prepared with our gloves and makeshift masks made from dish towels, courtesy of our mother. We stopped at CVS and I went in alone. Almost immediately, the cashier gave me a look of concern. This is a look that I have received multiple times as a young black man in America. A look that is followed by a glance at my hands and pockets to see if I am carrying a weapon. 

After leaving CVS, we went to 7-Eleven to grab some snacks. Upon pulling into the parking lot, I noticed two police cruisers parked outside. I went into the 7-Eleven with my hands at my side and eyes pointed ahead, purely out of instinct. My brother got out of the car to follow me inside just as the cops were leaving. They asked him if he was ok. He replied with “Yes, thank you, officer.” In that moment my heart skipped a beat. I was filled with a real fear that came from all the news reports, viral videos and my own personal experiences with racial profiling. 

Many African American men and women have died solely because they were living their everyday lives. Whether it was sleeping in their own bed, sitting on their couch eating ice cream, buying an air gun at Walmart or wearing a hood. We are not safe wherever we are because of the color of our skin. 

These emotions are not limited to African Americans. Since the pandemic began, Asian Americans have become victims of heightened racial stereotyping and bigotry. On my own college campus, I witnessed multiple people of Asian descent be ridiculed and stereotyped because people thought that because they were wearing a mask, they carried the virus. 

You would think that because of the paranoia and fear caused by this pandemic, we would compromise to come out of this stronger than ever, but racial tensions and the situation for minorities in the United States is getting worse.  

So, what exactly are our options here? Do we risk getting infected and dying of sickness because of fear of racism and stereotypes, or risk possibly dying at the hands of a racist cop? Do we comply with the health standards or get racially profiled? What are we supposed to do? Where does that leave us? Masked to protect against the coronavirus, or unmasked to protect against the virus that is racism? 

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Nathan Odige