Wearing a face mask helps protect me against Covid-19, but not against racism - Bio-Defense Network
May 2020

Wearing a face mask helps protect me against Covid-19, but not against racism

Physician Gabriel Felix writes in STAT that the Covid-19 pandemic is putting me in a difficult position as a physician and as a Black man. The order to wear a face mask in public has made it worse.

(NOTE: For our readers of color, have you had similar experiences? If so, share them with us!)

I’m a psychiatry resident at a safety-net hospital just outside of Boston. In the last week of March, I and health care workers from other specialties were redeployed to work in the hospital’s general medicine units to provide care for the surge of patients infected with Covid-19 as well as those with other medical problems.

All of us — nurses, physicians, and other health care professionals — had to work through obstacles as we rapidly learned new skills. We’ve bonded over this intense experience, sharing concerns about increased exposure to the virus that causes Covid-19, the families and friends we put at risk from our work, and what we are doing to stay healthy.

I share many of the fears and anxieties of my hospital co-workers surrounding Covid-19. Yet there are some ways the pandemic affects me in ways my colleagues have trouble understanding.

Take the simple act of wearing a face mask when out in public.

Long before Covid-19 existed, I’ve had to plan my wardrobe carefully. Standing 6 feet, 3 inches tall, I’ve become something of an expert at reading microexpressions of discomfort as I walk down a street and see the white person walking toward me trying to decide whether to cross to the other side, especially in the evening.

With the emergence of Covid-19, I’ve spent time weighing the pros and cons of wearing a face mask on evening walks to pick up takeout food or to go to the grocery store. I often opted not to wear one so I wouldn’t be perceived as appearing “suspicious.” My decision-making went as far as limiting how often I went out after dark, knowing that some people will see a masked Black man as a threat.

Then I received a text alert from my city one morning telling me that using a face mask is now mandatory in public and that people who don’t comply with the order could face a $300 fine.

As a physician, I favor things that will help reduce the transmission of coronavirus infections. But as a Black man, I wondered how this order will affect people who look like me. I wondered if this order went into effect with any understanding of the fear and anxiety it could inflict on people of color.

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