"I Can't Breathe ..."

Poster by Barbara Yasui quoting Minoru Yasui, used at the June 6, 2020 Tsuru for Solidarity protest in Seattle and Tacoma Washington. Photo by Eric Tagawa.

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“When you suppress or oppress any group of people, you are really derogating the rights of all people. I should be just as eager to defend your rights as I am my own because if they take away your rights they could take away mine, so I will fight to preserve yours. If there is suffering or pain that is unfairly imposed upon anyone, it's my duty, it’s your duty to try to alleviate it because that's the way in which we gain a better life for all of us.” - Minoru Yasui, Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice

“I can’t breathe …” The dying words of George Floyd resound throughout the nation, echoed in massive protests in the midst of a pandemic that literally takes the breath away from its victims, disproportionately people of color.

“I can’t breathe …” The novel coronavirus attacks the respiratory system, and those who succumb to it essentially suffocate because they can’t breathe. The COVID-19 crisis has brought into stark relief great disparities in the U.S. health care system and economic burdens which fall along racial and ethnic lines. More people of color are dying of the virus for various reasons: co-morbidity of untreated and/or chronic health conditions, exacerbated by general lack of access to adequate care; living in higher-density housing and neighborhoods; greater exposure to the virus because of work that can’t be done sheltering at home, e.g. agricultural, factory, and service jobs. And with lower and more precarious incomes, people of color are more severely impacted by the plunging of the U.S. economy into a deep recession.

“I can’t breathe …” Protesters repeat Floyd’s plea a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold in cities large and small. The breadth and depth of the protests and the diversity of the protesters is unprecedented. People of all ethnicities and all ages are risking their lives during this pandemic, to speak out and demand justice. In some places, protesters are mostly white, marching in solidarity, not just for defunding of police in favor of social services, but for dismantling all the systemic racism ingrained in our society and national consciousness. Protesters are tearing down symbolic relics of the slave-owning Confederacy and genocidal Conquistadores as well as calling for concrete actions to prevent police brutality and impunity. The widespread protests have had a notable impact upon public opinion, indicated not only in polls but also in new policies being discussed and implemented by local councils, state legislatures and Congress.

With these crises come both danger and opportunities. Will we rise to the challenge, or will we squander the chance to make fundamental systemic changes? Will we suffocate in the toxic atmosphere of fear and hatred that perpetuates racism and injustice; or will we breathe new life into our common cause of survival and transform of our society into a better place for all?

POSTSCRIPT Parable of the Mask: the Common Good

Photo: Stephen Ferry/VIEWpress via Getty Images

Like it or not, we’re all in this together, we all breathe the same air, we depend on each other and our planet, which poses the most fundamental existential crisis imaginable – the end of our entire species due to climate change unless we take timely and concerted actions for the common good.

The face mask is perhaps the simplest but most telling symbol of people taking action for the common good, or not. According to medical experts, its primary purpose is not to protect the wearer from the coronavirus, but to protect others with whom the wearer comes into contact. Therefore, using or not using a mask is an indication that a person is taking into consideration, or not, the health and safety of the people around them.

So, why would anyone refuse to wear a mask? The most prominent non-wearer of masks, the President of the United States, says that it doesn’t look good, and that he gets tested for COVID-19 frequently, so it’s not necessary.

To refuse to wear a mask based on vanity is tremendously egoistic, compounded by glaring inequity since millions of people in the U.S. who are not rich and powerful cannot get tested in spite of their higher-risk circumstances. That act of selfish privilege sets an example, and like so many stances today, has become politicized.

The pseudo-libertarian argument, that one has the right to risk one’s own health in the name of personal freedom, misunderstands the existential social interrelations in which we are all embedded. The concept of the common good underlies regulations such as speed limits and smoking in enclosed public places. In this pandemic, people who do not wear masks put the lives of everyone around them at risk. Unlike speeding and smoking which affect only those in the driver’s and smoker’s immediate vicinity, those who refuse to wear face masks facilitate the spread of the coronavirus in exponentially expanding circles. Which is why there is much more at stake.

Willingness to restrict our own breath with a mask is a minor inconvenience that most people accept since we do believe in science, we do care about others and intuitively understand that we all depend on the web of life that surrounds us. It’s an easier and more direct concession to the common good than driving less (and within the speed limit), eating less meat, recycling; which in turn are simpler and requires less commitment than working together for social and environmental justice, to resolve our differences and to reduce carbon footprints, to re-imagine and re-create a better world. So, wearing a face mask is just a starting point, a very small act consciousness of community, of solidarity, of advancing the common good upon which our survival depends.

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