Across the nation and in various counties in Maryland, mask mandates are being lifted. Politicians on all sides waiting for midterms and upholding promises to the business community have decided it’s OK to put Black lives at risk for personal gain.
Black people know this game. Our whole lives are based on survival since the founding of this nation. Horrifically, Black people are always the first to be sacrificed and the last to be protected. Everything from the polluted air we breathe in our neighborhoods to mass incarceration and food insecurity are intentional symptoms of the legacy of racism.
As we approach the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, I know that everyone would like for things to be back to normal, but the truth is normal wasn’t good enough for Black people. Now should be the chance to right our wrongs and listen to those most impacted to help us through these trying times and stop leaving us behind.
In Maryland, the lack of leadership from the governor and from local governments proves people have decided to just move on. The state Department of Health has been frequently inconsistent in updating its data on COVID, while school boards are voting to put our most vulnerable children, many of whom still cannot get vaccinated, at risk by removing mask mandates. Many Black communities still don’t have access to tests, and we continue to be victims of misinformation, a health care system that fails us and a profitable insurance market that allows the wealthy and well-resourced to declare the pandemic over.
In Baltimore City and beyond, we need strategies that include us and remove barriers to vaccine hesitancy. As a formerly incarcerated individual working in communities with Black people who seek to turn their lives around and thrive as they reenter our society, I know firsthand the challenges we face. I got vaccinated because someone I knew and trusted educated me and removed barriers to help me register for the vaccine — and I have now chosen to do the same for others.
Our team is working to advocate and build resources to assist communities that are left to help themselves, from the pandemic to arrests, trauma and other crises, like experiencing homelessness and unemployment. We know what works to get more people to protect themselves, their loved ones and their communities. In fact, at the height of the pandemic, for 29 weeks, our organization handed out masks and educated our neighbors on how and where to get vaccinated. More people in power should listen to people who look like me instead of yelling at us to just “Google it.”
It’s also imperative that we look at the pandemic through the lens of our entire care infrastructure; it is deeply connected to other social issues. In May of 2020, long before health care advocates came into our communities in Baltimore, my colleagues and I worked with several partners and a few elected officials to not just offer vaccines for Black and brown communities, but to also get criminal records expunged, help people with evictions and provide access to job opportunities in the Waverly neighborhood in the city — all in one place. The vaccine lottery and giveaway gimmicks are nice, but helping people, especially Black and brown people, get their lives back is better.
I live in Baltimore City, where over 60% of the population is Black with a “substantial” community transmission rate. In my city, in our state and across the country, it’s time to stay committed to strategies that we know work. For us to get through this pandemic, I am urging our policymakers and elected leaders to help us protect ourselves. Listen to Black communities. Trust us and remove the systemic issues that keep us from the help with need. Work with us by centering our existing leadership with dignity and understanding. Together, we can value the Black community’s well-being and create the collective village we so desperately need to fight for tomorrow.
Antoin Quarles (email@example.com) is a Baltimore City resident and founder and CEO of H.O.P.E. (Helping Oppressed People Excel).