August 3, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 15: Mandating masks and looking to the past to understand the Black Lives Matter Movement

In an effort to help minimize the spread of the coronavirus, many states have begun mandating citizens wear masks when out in public. But the topic has become political in the U.S., with some people stating enforced mask-wearing infringes on their rights. But Seema Mohapatra, an associate professor of law, says during a public health emergency, the executive branch has wide latitude in deciding the best ways to protect health. In fact, it is the same power that allowed for the closure of schools, businesses, and travel restrictions back in March. Mohapatra said those looking to sue are going to find a hard path ahead of them because during the urgency of a public health emergency, a governor can move more quickly and with more freedom to protect people. Federal courts, she said, including the Supreme Court of the United States, have upheld the ability of governors and mayors to take aggressive steps during a public health emergency. Mohapatra says mask mandates are helped by more and more studies pointing to the effectiveness of masks in slowing or stopping the spread of COVID-19. However, initial mixed messaging has led to confusion and mistrust. She says public leaders need to explain that we are constantly learning more about what is effective in stopping the spread of the virus. There also needs to be consistent messaging backed by studies. In the end, Mohapatra says mask mandates are much less intrusive than closing businesses, schools and other measures taken back during the early weeks of the pandemic.

In other news, some critics of Black Lives Matter say the movement itself is racist. Their frequent counterargument: All lives matter. But Eric Kyere, an assistant professor of social work at Indiana University, says an historical perspective is critical to understanding how racism persists in this country, and how to counter it. Looking back to the very beginnings of the U.S., Kyere says, Black lives in this country did not seem to matter at all. Among the many cruelties heaped upon enslaved people was lack of health care. Mothers were forced to return to the fields soon after giving birth, often having to leave their infants without care or food. Adult people who were enslaved who showed signs of exhaustion or depression were often beaten. Enslaved people were poorly fed, overworked and overcrowded, which promoted germ transmission. So did their housing – bare, cold and windowless, or close to it. Because they were not paid, Kyere says, slaves could not maintain personal hygiene. Diseases among the enslaved people in the colonies and later the states were common and at a disparate rate when compared to whites: typhus, measles, mumps, chicken pox, typhoid and more. Slave owners brought in a doctor only as a last resort. Instead, the white master and his wife would provide the health care, though rarely were either trained physicians. As with everything else, Kyere said Blacks had no say about their care. Additionally, some Black women were used in medical experiments; white physicians conducted research, some without anesthesia, on pregnant women, inflicting tremendous pain and sometimes killing the infants being carried. More than 150 years later, Kyere says, health disparities of Black and white Americans remain. To fix what is wrong today, he says, we must understand the inequities of today are rooted in the past. Only then, he said, can we begin to dismantle the structural racism that is replete within the American system.