Masks and Privilege

Masking up a social justice issue, says COVID survivor

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By Katie Capano

Make no mistake. Wearing a mask is an act of social justice. Black and Latin-X people are three times as likely to get sick and twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than White people. In some states, like California, those numbers are dramatically increased. In fact, Latin-X people in California between the ages of 35 and 49 are 10 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than their White counterparts.

Why am I leading with race and ethnicity data? Because the appeal to common sense and science has failed. The data for mask wearing is overwhelming and plentiful. There is observational data from Japan and Korea, worldwide randomized controlled trials of both SARS-Cov-2 and SARS-Cov (a nearly identical virus), quantum mechanics data about how viral particles move, etc.

Yet somehow, anti-science prevails in small wellness communities like Tahoe. So it’s time to appeal to our humanity. People of color are dying in this country from COVID-19 at alarming rates. I know because I held their hands in Queens in April and May, and I am doing it again in Baltimore now. My patients are a diverse group. They speak Cantonese and Arabic and Spanish and Creole and Tzutujil Maya. They are young and old and middle aged. They are Democrat and Republican. The only thing they’ve all had in common: Every single one of them has been a person of color. Every. Single. One.

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We are still reusing our N95s and surgical masks for as long as possible. I wore my first mask in a COVID-19 unit in Queens for 11 days straight. Twelve hours a day for 11 days; 132 hours. Soon after, I finally contracted COVID-19. The first 14 days experiencing the disease, I was completely unable to take care of myself. I couldn’t speak in complete sentences or walk due to severe shortness of breath. The fevers and body aches were unbearable.

Then the brain swelling started.

I finally went back to work last week but my headaches and dizziness continue. My memory is affected. I was managing a hemorrhage today and I couldn’t remember the name of a drug I’ve used 100 times. New research shows the brain damage could be permanent. I pray they are wrong.

Remember, privilege is the belief that something isn’t a problem because it hasn’t been a problem to you, personally. Wearing a mask for 40 to 60 hours per week for the past four months taught me a lot, like the importance of humility and grace when facing the unknown, and acknowledging my privilege and enduring my discomfort to protect others. The importance of timing bathroom breaks and water breaks wisely. Most importantly, it taught me the importance of speaking up.

Tahoe, it’s time to speak up. Too many of our White neighbors aren’t wearing masks. Too many of our Black, Brown, and Indigenous neighbors’ lives are at risk. Speaking up is no longer an option. It is a necessity.

~ A nurse-midwife and family nurse practitioner, Katie has over 20 years of healthcare experience. She has worked on the frontline of the COVID-19 epidemic since April. She is passionate about healthcare justice and believes high-quality healthcare is a right regardless of ability to pay. Katie currently works as a bilingual midwife for Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

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