Citizen Activism & Covid-19: White Paper

By: Andrew Koh

           The Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be the most significant and universally destructive dilemma the world has faced in the early 21st century. Affecting all aspects of American life like politics, societal behaviors, education, economy, public policy, etc., the multidimensional challenges faced with this pandemic have been debilitating to our current understanding of domestic and global healthcare.

           As America tackles the grim realities of the incredible number of people affected by this crisis with nearly 14 million confirmed cases and over 273,000 deaths, the lax response and decision-making by those at the federal level have proven costly towards finding any significant solutions to galvanize and encourage the country to participate in the CDC and WHO guidelines to help contain and prevent the continuing spread of the coronavirus.

           Much of the response regarding the containment and prevention of Covid-19 has been at the discretion of state governments, predominately through statewide mandates promoting the wearing of protective face masks and encouraging social distancing protocols in public spaces. However, the politicization of wearing face masks and acknowledging the scientific and healthcare community’s data supporting the CDC guidelines, caused by the Trump administration, has made any substantial attempt to embolden the American public’s participation extraordinarily difficult. The polarization of the public due to the intense political climate has divided opinions on the validity of the scientific and healthcare community’s findings as well as spark a debate between those who support the research advocating the wearing of face masks in the name of social responsibility and protecting our local communities versus those who reject the CDC guidelines and scientific research in the name of maintaining ones’ personal freedoms and civil liberties.

           Despite all of these challenges, a variety of solutions have been put to the test by citizen activists in an attempt to combat the spread of the virus, challenge the inequities seen prior and during the pandemic, and rally around their local communities to engage in a personable dialogue to spread the awareness of wearing masks and do exactly what the federal and state governments have failed to accomplish: Empathetically educate and communicate the significance of the scientific community’s findings and encourage skeptics to comply for the sake of country’s greater wellbeing.

The Findings on Wearing Face Masks

            The scientific and healthcare community’s support of the CDC and WHO guidelines advocating for the use of protective face masks was able to determine the cause of the person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus in addition to analyzing the overall effectiveness of the face mask in Covid-19 prevention.

            According to an experiment conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine, “aerosols and droplets generated during speech were associated in the person-to-person transmission of viruses and by using high-speed video, they found that hundreds of droplets were generated when saying a simple phrase, but that nearly all these droplets were blocked when the mouth was covered by a damp washcloth” (Bai, 2020).

            Additionally, “in a study analyzing the Covid-19 growth rate before and after mask mandates in 15 states and the District of Columbia, it found that mask mandates led to a slowdown in daily COVID-19 growth rate, which became more apparent over time” (Bai, 2020). The study discovered that during “the first five days after a mandate, the daily growth rate slowed by 0.9 percentage-points compared to the five days prior to the mandate; at three weeks, the daily growth rate had slowed by 2 percentage-points.” (Bai, 2020).

           The study conducted by Wei Lyu and George L. Wehby from the Department of Health Management and Policy, College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, “estimated that as a result of the implementation of these mandates, more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases were averted and the findings suggest that requiring face mask use in public could help in mitigating the spread of COVID-19” (2020).

           Furthermore, a study conducted between five universities including the University of Cambridge, University College London, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology also found that “if 80% of the general population wore masks in public, the spread of Covid-19 would drop by more than 90%” (Dhvani, 2020).

           However, in spite of the scientific community’s overwhelming amount of data supporting the CDC and WHO guidelines in wearing face masks, the Trump administration made it repeatedly known that this was a “voluntary choice”, completely undermining the research in delivering a partisan theme of Covid-19 denial and scientific distrust (Holland & Alper, 2020).

The U.S. Covid-19 Response: A Scientific Backlash

            President Donald Trump, while speaking to Washington Post journalist, Bob Woodward on March 11th, admitted to downplaying the risks and significance of the pandemic in order to not panic the American people. (Tollefson, 2020). However, the Trump administration’s downplaying raised skepticism among his supporters and devalued the evidence provided by his advisors and the scientific community advocating for the wearing of face masks by the CDC and WHO guidelines. Ultimately, “sabotaging efforts to keep people safe,” according to Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York City, “who modelled the evolution of the pandemic and how earlier interventions might have saved lives in the United States” (Tollefson, 2020).

            President Trump continually ignored the dangers of Covid-19 as he had repeatedly declared 38 times that the virus was either going to disappear or currently disappearing since February (Wolfe & Dale, 2020). Even days after testing positive for Covid-19 and being hospitalized, he continued to disparage the severity of the pandemic on October 10th saying, “It’s going to disappear, it’s disappearing” (Wolfe & Dale, 2020).

            The incredible ineptitude to offer any substantial federal response to combat against Covid-19, regardless of the vast amounts of scientific research, fueled the stark politicization of the Covid-19 dilemma, increasing right-wing ignorance and cynicism towards the CDC and their advisement to wear protective face masks.

            According a Pew Research study (2020), “61 percent of Republicans believe that the worst of Covid-19 is behind us compared to the 76 percent of Democrats who believe the worst is yet to come.”

            Additionally, a Pew Research study published on June 23rd, found that 53% of Americans who leaned with Republican values said they wore masks all or most of the time in public compared to the 76% of Americans who leaned Democrat (2020).

            The disaster of a federal response to the pandemic inevitably led White House Press Correspondents and reporters to shout questions at Vice President Mike Pence following a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing where he declined to engage in a Q&A session on November 19th, the first federal Covid-19 related correspondence in four months (NBC News, 2020).

Leave It to the States

            The United States’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been largely left at the hands of the state governments to implement their own solutions respective to their state. Nonetheless, as Covid-19 cases and deaths started to surge by the month of March and public health experts began urging for a nationwide lockdown, “the pattern of state responses followed the broader stream of political and policy choices that were already in place, showing that the states that locked down in March voted for President Trump at a much lower rate and tended to have weaker Republican control of their state governments” (Kettl, 2020).

            Moreover, as 36 states including Washington DC and Puerto Rico have implemented the requirement of wearing protective face masks in public statewide, the 14 states who declined to enact a mask mandate were all governed by Republican leaders (Asmelash et al., 2020).

            The power and unwaveringly neglectful messaging by the Trump administration has severely damaged the relationship and trust of public health officials and the scientific community towards the public and those who align with conservative values, making it incredibly difficult to engage and encourage positive actions against the continued spread of Covid-19.

Citizen Activists Lead the Way

            In the face of all the complex, multifaceted challenges regarding politics, public health, society, and public policy, activism during the era of Covid-19 has amplified into a scale of greater visibility than ever before.

           Doreen Martinez, an associate professor at Colorado State University’s Department of Ethnic Studies, whose research includes sociopolitical environment issues and visual culture, believes that “the general populace has become much more aware of activism, whether that’s through news media or social media. Currently, activism has a feel and an energy to it that is new to a lot of people, where it rallies people” (Courage, 2020).

           Citizen activists are galvanizing together in a way that responds to “a greater sense of urgency now than in the recent past, whether the issue is racial justice, public health, financial insecurity, or climate change,” said Eric Ishiwata, an associate professor of ethnic studies at Colorado State University who researches race relations (Courage, 2020).

           In addition, Martinez asserts that due to “the pandemic making people feel more isolated and, in many ways, less in control of their lives, people are feeling a vulnerability that they might not be used to. People are seeking to have some say in their lives, and it has created the perfect storm to bring more people into activism” (Courage, 2020).

           Through these academic perspectives, we can start to understand how citizen activists have lead the way, in spite of their governmental leaders, to engage with their communities, mobilize, and find possible solutions to problems tackling the Covid-19 dilemma while opening an empathetic dialogue encouraging nay-sayers to wear protective face masks.

Covid-19’s Effect on Race

            Due to a plethora of issues prior to the pandemic regarding income inequality, housing, immigration, lack of access to healthcare, etc., the possibility of people of color receiving and dying from Covid-19 was incredibly significant.

Based upon “demographic data collected by a study conducted by the Antiracist Research & Policy Center and the Covid Tracking Project, the analysis compared each racial or ethnic group’s share of infections or deaths where race and ethnicity is known with their share of population” (Godoy & Wood, 2020).

           The data found that “African-American deaths from Covid-19 are nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population. In four states, the rate is three or more times greater. In 42 states plus Washington D.C., Hispanics make up a greater share of confirmed cases than their share of the population. In eight states, it’s more than four times greater. White deaths from Covid-19 are lower than their share of the population in 37 states and the District of Columbia” (Godoy & Wood, 2020).

           Additionally, a study conducted by APM Research Lab (2020), found nationwide actual mortality impacts from Covid-19 data and discovered 1 in 875 Black Americans has died (or 114.3 deaths per 100,000), 1 in 925 Indigenous Americans has died (or 108.3 deaths per 100,000), and 1 in 1,275 Latino Americans has died (or 78.5 deaths per 100,000).

           In response to this data and determined to make a difference towards their own communities, citizen activists have stepped up to mobilize, raise funds, and distribute face masks towards African American and Hispanic communities.

Citizen Activism in Action: Race

           The Racial Justice Network, a grassroots organization, committed to fighting for racial justice and building bridges across racial, social, and economic lines in Minneapolis, Minnesota, looked to raise awareness on the importance of wearing face masks by sewing and creating masks featuring artistic prints representative of African American heritage and designs to encourage African Americans in their community to wear them (Chapman, 2020).

           The Racial Justice Network’s founder, Nekima Levy-Armstrong, championed the use of face masks and handed out free masks to educate and engage in a personable dialogue with members of his community. “I drove around my community and I saw that many people did not have masks,” Levy-Armstrong said. “We would go out into the community, of course wearing masks ourselves, doing our best to practice social distancing, and we would educate people and we would put masks in their hands” (Chapman, 2020).

           Levy-Armstrong’s colleague and fellow activist KingDemetrius Pendleton was able to assist in the organization’s effort to raise mask awareness by sewing and handing out more than 170 face masks (Chapman, 2020).

           Additionally, citizen activist, Myra Anderson of Virginia decided to raise $5,000 to purchase and distribute face masks towards her African American community who needed them the most. In her attempts to gain funds, she found support in Libby Edwards-Allbaugh with the National Coalition of 100 Black Women who assisted Anderson’s activism through the organization’s members, infrastructure, resources, and ability for distribution (Stuart, 2020).

           Anderson and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women’s ability to mobilize and inspire one another allowed them to push the $5,000 goal to $9,000, in addition to a donor who was willing to match another $5,000 to the fundraising effort. (Stuart, 2020).

           The personable dialogue that citizens can have with one another can empathetically acknowledge skepticism while also educating and let people know they truly care about each other. “People were excited to see that there was outreach going on to show that we cared about people in our community, and we were reminding folks that contrary to some of the false information that had been put out early on, claiming that Black people couldn’t get Covid-19,” said Levy-Armstrong (Chapman, 2020).

Citizen Activism with Fashion & Business

            Another example of citizen activism addressing potential empathetic solutions to encourage the wearing of face masks is through the lens of fashion and textile design. Many retail businesses like Dhvani who needed to adapt as a result of the economic impacts of Covid-19 decided to utilize their resources to encourage the wearing of face masks while continuing to advocate for their business.

            Dhvani, an environmentally-conscious active wear company based in Portland, Oregon looked to embrace their ethical mission in a way that would raise awareness to the scientific findings and research supporting the use of face masks, while donating masks to essential workers and anyone who requested a free mask on their website as a part of their, A Mask for Every American fundraising campaign (PRNewswire, 2020).

            In an independent level, Lisbeth Arias, the owner of an artisan clothing brand Descalza, based in North Carolina, utilized traditional fabrics from El Salvador and Guatemala to create a range of fashionable face masks, applying a form of citizen activism through an empathetic and cultural approach towards her Hispanic community to promote the wearing of masks in preventing Covid-19 (Sanchez-Guerra, 2020).

            Additionally, for every mask purchased from Arias, one is made and donated for an immigrant Latino farmworker during this agricultural season.

            Other mask makers and citizen activists like Sara Huestis make face masks with cartoon characters and sports brands to empathetically identify with people and make face masks a comfortably fashionable accessory as well as being protective.

            According to Huestis, “her masks with characters like Peppa Pig or Thomas the Tank Engine are the only way many parents say their children will wear masks” (Sanchez-Guerra, 2020). She also acknowledged that her 82-year-old father won’t wear a mask unless it has the Marine Corps or his alma mater on it.

           “I think especially when it comes to kids who may not feel comfortable in a mask at first, if you can find one with something fun that they like and can relate to, that can help ease their apprehension” (Sanchez-Guerra, 2020).

            Throughout all of these citizen activism implementations, the theme of empathy and understanding runs through to convince Covid-19 doubters the benefits and importance in wearing a mask to prevent the spreading of the virus. Akin to the phenomenon of the condom’s implementation for safe sex, Dr. Michelle Ybarra, President and Research Director of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research equates the dilemma of the protective face masks as the need for public policy to “elicit the messages from the population you’re trying to educate, to listen carefully, and learn what the cultural barriers may be, and to hear from the people who are choosing to wear masks. And it helps to contextualize risk, to offer data and to send the message, “We are all in this together, we are all at risk” (Klass, 2020).

           All of these examples of citizen and community activism highlight Ybarra’s assertion and showcase the potential solutions available to inspire and educate people at the local level, to participate in important causes like the Covid-19 pandemic and shape substantial progress. Thus, gradually influencing positive policy action and gain awareness to solutions that can be implemented in the federal and state level.

           Ultimately, large-scale solutions must be considered in trying to contain and stop the spread of the coronavirus. However, regardless of an upcoming Biden administration, the federal and state governments must seriously consider the actions taken by citizen activists and their empathetic approaches to rally their communities together. Especially if there are plans to advocate for a federally mandated order to wear face masks. It is imperative that an empathetic and considerate national conversation takes place to inform and unite Americans together beyond political party lines. Failure to do so will only prolong and increase the catastrophic numbers we have been facing.


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