OPINION: Mask inequities must be solved


Jackson Futch

As the omicron variant storms through communities, N95 and KN95 masks, and COVID-19 tests are becoming harder and harder to find. Masks and testing remain the best line of defense against omicron but the vital supplies aren’t reaching lower income families and students. The uneven distribution can put marginalized groups in a dangerous situation. The U.S. government has done the bare minimum to remedy the situation it caused with a lack of foresight and poor planning, even while vocal advocates fight for a solution.

When the pandemic began, there was obvious resistance in the national government to treat the health threat seriously. A poll taken in August 2020 showed 60% of Americans thought the government was making the pandemic worse. The government’s lack of preparedness is evident in the abysmal stockpile of masks the U.S. was supposed to keep. In case of a wide-scale pandemic, exactly like COVID-19, the U.S. would require around 3 billion N95 masks, but the country only had 12 million, less than 1% of the required total. Once the Biden administration stepped into the White House, they tripled the number of masks to 750 million, still only 25% of what the country needs.

   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the best way to protect yourself and others from the pandemic is a KN95 or a N95 mask, yet the national government was reluctant to hand out free masks until mid January . The Biden administration announced it will send out 400 million N95 masks to families who request them across the nation, but that is barely more masks than the number of citizens in the country. Meaning that this level of distribution would drop the national supply back down to a mere 350 million. Thus making it impossible to keep the program stable without greatly increasing government spending, something government officials have been reluctant to do. This effectively makes the program a short term band aid solution instead of a long term fix. It is a step in the right direction, but it does not go quite far enough to truly fix the conditions many Americans find themselves in. 

Lack of high quality masks is especially bad for students and lower-income citizens who work in retail and other high trafficked areas. N95 or KN95 masks can last a week of regular use, but more intense and constant use, such as going to classes or living in a dorm, can make them degrade even quicker. Having to constantly buy and replace masks can be a strain on low-income individuals as prices have surged as high as $80 a pack.

At-home COVID-19 testing has been subjected to the same marginalization and commoditization as masks. Testing is less of the government’s fault as reliable COVID-19 testing was not available until March 2020. In fact the lack of testing can be linked to company hoarding. One of the best examples of this is Google’s policies for COVID-19 testing. At-home workers for Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are paid nearly $200,000. They have a lower risk for catching COVID-19 than the average American and can get up to 40 free COVID tests a month. This has been a constant theme during the pandemic. Rich, privileged, white collar employees and owners have access to massive COVID-19 testing stockpiles, while the poor laborers and students are forced to stand in lines out in the cold to try to get a test. Even at Google, this discrepancy is shown as the lower paid custodian and “unskilled” workers, who actually have to come in and expose themselves, are not given access equal to their more valued elitist counterparts. 

This issue is something  the national government is trying to tackle. Biden’s administration has begun a program to send 4 free rapid covid-19 tests to each household. This is an amazing step in the right direction to provide lower and middle class individuals, including many students, with a COVID-19 test stockpile. This step could lead to an evening of the playing field of test acquisition, but would need more funding to properly equip citizens with enough tests in a short period of time. 

 Even as the pandemic drags on and the disproportionate rationing of life saving protective equipment and tests seems to be damning, there is still hope. Some politicians, led by Senator Bernie Sanders, have pushed for a consistent free supply of masks for all low-income American citizens. Something that could dramatically reduce the inequality found in the dissemination of personal protective equipment. The biggest tool individuals need is knowledge of where and how to get COVID-19 tests and masks. App State students can get unlimited free testing through the school at Legends. Plemmons Student Union is also distributing free N95 masks to students. Students can take action, too, by writing and emailing the administration to voice concerns. Students have a right to feel as safe as possible and protect themselves and those around them even in the face of a system that does not work for them.