Ask Code Switch: Race And The Coronavirus Edition : Code Switch We take on some of your questions about race, the coronavirus and social distancing. The questions are tricky, and as usual on Code Switch, the reality is even trickier.

Ask Code Switch: The Coronavirus Edition

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One little word.

DEMBY: (Laughter).


DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

BATES: I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, sitting in for Shereen. And this is CODE SWITCH.



BATES: The COVID-19 pandemic has left us all with a lot of uncertainty. We're trying to check on our loved ones. We're worried about our next paychecks, our jobs, our physical health.

DEMBY: And we're not even sure what COVID-19 is doing to us. We're not sure how it works or, like, why some people who have COVID-19 don't have any symptoms. And that's even as this coronavirus continues to kill thousands and thousands of people in the United States every day.

BATES: We all have so many questions right now, so this is Ask Code Switch: The Pandemic Edition.

DEMBY: If y'all have been rocking with us for a minute, you already know the deal. Ask Code Switch is where we tackle your questions. We put out a callout for your questions about race and identity in this particular moment we're living in, and y'all asked us some tough questions about the pandemic, obviously, and the fissures and frailties in our society that our response to this moment has exposed.

BATES: Yeah. And it's stuff like spatial distancing. You know, we're very aware of that 6-foot buffer that we need to keep. And when it doesn't get kept, sometimes violence ensues 'cause people are scared. You know, you used to get a side-eye if you walked down the street and somebody coughed and didn't cover their mouth. Now they might get assaulted because people are frantic. They're afraid of dying. They're not exactly sure how this virus is transmitted, and they don't want to take any chances.

DEMBY: Right. That's right. I mean, it's all of these anxieties that people had in the pre-coronavirus world heightened by potentially fatal illness.

BATES: If you cough on me, am I going to die? That's, like, something to contemplate.

DEMBY: Right, exactly.

BATES: So it's the little things and the big things.

DEMBY: I mean, KGB, you've been appending all your emails to us with wash your hands in your email signature.

BATES: Well, it's just my phone emails. You won't see those on my official NPR emails, although it's a thought. But, yeah, enough of my hand-washing obsession. Let's do what we're here to do.


BATES: People sent in some great questions about race and the 'rona (ph). Gene, our first question is about the responsibility of allyship. It's from a listener named Jacqueline (ph). Here's her question.

JACQUELINE: I always take my friend grocery shopping with me because she doesn't have a car. She started going incognito, covering her face with a mask and a hat so that other shoppers might not notice that she's Asian. She started doing this after a friend of hers was deliberately coughed on.

BATES: And Jacqueline said she didn't quite know how to respond to that.

JACQUELINE: But I said, people are stupid. I'm sorry this is happening. I support you doing whatever you feel is necessary to be safe. And if anyone messes with you, they're going to have to deal with me. I feel like my constant, I'm sorry white people are so dumb, is overused and unhelpful. What are the things that I as a white person should or should not say and do? And what should I do if someone does harass my friend?

DEMBY: We did a whole episode on the history of pandemics and disease and how that is often racialized. Coronavirus, of course, is leading to this rise in anti-Asian sentiment. The president of the United States was calling it the Wuhan virus to connect it to China. And so there was a rise of anti-Chinese sentiment and anti-Asian sentiment more broadly even though the - as far as we know, the disease did not come to the Unites States from China. This is also an allyship question, which is a genre of question we get a lot, as you might imagine. But, KGB, what are your thoughts about Jacqueline's question here?

BATES: Jacqueline's friend is not super paranoid to be worrying about this. I talked to Jeff Yang. I think you probably know him. He's a journalist and a writer. And he'd had the exact same experience that Jacqueline said her friend was worried about having.

DEMBY: You said exact same experience. Like, personally?

BATES: Yeah. He told me that while he was in line recently to get into a grocery store - and he noticed he was the only Asian in the line - a white woman glared at him, pulled down her mask, cursed at him and coughed on him...

DEMBY: Oh, Lord.

BATES: ...Before getting into her car and driving away while everybody was sort of looking around like, huh, did that just happen?

DEMBY: Oh, my God. People are so foul. That's disgusting.

BATES: Yep, it is.

DEMBY: Oh, my God.

BATES: He said it took him a minute to process it. But when he got home later that day, he tweeted about it happening, and that tweet went viral.

DEMBY: Viral - really, Karen?

BATES: No pun intended. I'm sorry.

DEMBY: Really?

BATES: Yeah. So a lot of the response to his tweet came from white folks, he says. Some of it was apologies on behalf of the offender, some telling him he was just too paranoid, you know, seeing race in everything, insisting on choosing victimhood 'cause - you know.

DEMBY: Yeah, of course. Obviously, yeah. Yeah.

BATES: Yeah.

DEMBY: That's how it goes, yep.

BATES: And Jeff had some strong feelings about that.

JEFF YANG: This is dangerous at a level which we haven't seen, I think, in generations. These are - this is the language of war.

BATES: Jeff says the language coming from some of our leaders singles out an ethnic group simply because of its ancestry and implies that Asian Americans are not real Americans.

YANG: This is painting a target on millions of Americans. And I'm not sure at all that Trump and others who are using this language aren't entirely aware of it. It's incumbent on us, all of us, to speak up in a much louder and more collected voice about where the rhetoric is heading.

BATES: Because when stuff pops off, you need a few things. And one of them is validation that the thing you experience actually happened, that you're not bugging or being overly sensitive.

DEMBY: It almost reminds me of that Dave Chappelle joke about how something pops off and sometimes you can't even pull it together to respond outside of the just be stunned that it happened.


DAVE CHAPPELLE: Have you ever had something happen that was so racist that you didn't even get mad? You were just like, goddamn, that was racist.


DEMBY: On a basic level, sometimes you just need somebody to be there to be like, yes, indeed, that was, in fact, racist.

BATES: Jeff says be a monitor, an observer. And if you can catch someone in the act in a little phone video, document it. Not every assailant cares, but you'd be surprised how many just sort of creep away when they think they're going to be on the Interweb. So, Jacqueline, keep your phone handy.

DEMBY: And obviously, Jacqueline, if you're trying to be an ally, you've got to remember you are obligated to step up. It's not really optional. But also, even if nothing pops off, the supermarket is clearly a space of anxiety for your friend right now. So she might just be comforted to know that she has a buddy with her when she goes out in public. And, of course, she will know specifically what she needs. I think this is true of all the ally questions we get. Like, the most effective allyship is going to be what your friend says - like, not in the abstract, but, like, what she specifically says would be most helpful to her. So make sure you ask her what she needs so you can show up for her when she needs it.


BATES: Well, thank you, Jacqueline. I hope this helped.


BATES: All right. After the break...

ALTINAY CORTES: I have watched so many of my people out and about like nothing is happening. Can we convince them to stay home?

BATES: We'll get to that and more in just a moment. Stay with us.


BATES: Karen.

DEMBY: Gene.



DEMBY: All right, y'all. So this next question comes to us from a listener named Mark Love-Williamson.

MARK LOVE-WILLIAMSON: I'm calling about the response to the coronavirus for the Native American communities. Here in New Mexico, more than half of the cases are in the Native American community, and they represent less than 20% of the population.

DEMBY: Mark notes that the death rate is many times what it is among other populations.

LOVE-WILLIAMSON: And the sad truth is that Indian Health Services and infrastructure development have been underfunded for decades. And I'm wondering why the government isn't responding strongly and aggressively.

BATES: Mark points out the way the virus is hitting this community particularly affects the people who are the repositories of the community's institutional knowledge - their older generation. He wants to know what's being done...

LOVE-WILLIAMSON: To stop what amounts to a cultural genocide as elderly people succumb to this virus and much cultural knowledge is lost.

DEMBY: Yeah. So this isn't really an advice question but more a question about what we know, what we don't know and why we're not paying attention. So, OK, let's back up a little bit. The Indian Health Service was established by the federal government as part of some treaty agreements with hundreds of Native tribes. The IHS is supposed to provide public health care to people who belong to an Indian nation, who have membership. All you have to do is show proof of tribal membership. But like so many agreements with Indigenous nations and the U.S. federal government, the U.S. federal government did not hold up its end of the deal.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: The federal government spends about $3,000 per person on health care in Indian Country while it spends closer to 9,000 on veteran health and $12,000 on Medicare.

DEMBY: That's Laurel Morales. She's a reporter at the Fronteras Desk, a public radio collaborative project that covers the Southwest. Laurel is based in Flagstaff, Ariz., near the Navajo Nation, which is one of the largest Native tribes in the country. She says that while the federal government gave a little over a billion dollars in pandemic relief to the IHS and another $600 million to the Navajo Nation, that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the many, many billions of dollars that these communities need for medical care and for infrastructure, because Navajo Nation is poor. In some places, chronic unemployment is near 50%. And many people on the reservation don't have electricity or running water. But what makes dealing with a crisis like this even trickier there is the size of Navajo Nation.

MORALES: The Navajo Nation is the size of West Virginia, and it spans across three states, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. There are 350,000 Navajo people, but 170,000 people live on the Navajo Nation.

BATES: One hundred, seventy thousand people spread across a region the size of West Virginia - so it's vast and pretty remote, yes?

DEMBY: Right. I mean, everyone is really spread out. Laurel said that families on the reservation often live miles from their nearest neighbors. And so when coronavirus first made its way to the United States, there was this sense that that remoteness might help stem the spread because people were so far apart. And the tribe shut down everything really early on to get ahead of it. But as we found out, the opposite has turned out to be true. When we talked to Laurel in early May, there were about 2,750 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 88 deaths. Laurel said that's not counting some of the border towns near the reservation. So Navajo Nation by itself accounts for more than half of all the COVID cases in Indian Country.

MORALES: Per capita, after New York and New Jersey, the Navajo Nation is third in terms of infection rate.

BATES: Which would indicate to me that something is seriously wrong there.

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, for one, the size means that for a lot of people, staying at home is just not a feasible option. So here's one example. We talked about food deserts before, right?

BATES: Right.

DEMBY: On this reservation, it's another beast entirely. There are only 13 grocery stores on this reservation, again, in an area the size of West Virginia. So day-to-day life means being out in the world for hours at a time to get the things you need to get by.

MORALES: I spoke to one woman - a Navajo woman who calls herself the runner in the family. And she's doing it all, you know? When the schools were providing lunches, she was picking up lunches for the kids at school and then a lunch for her mother, who's an elder, from the senior center, and then hauling water, which was a 45-minute drive, and then waiting in line to dump her trash because they, you know, they don't have any trash services running.

DEMBY: Every one of those places is a potential contact point for other people who may be infected. Laurel said that woman had to decide whether it was more important for her to dump her family's trash or whether she had to get back in the car and drive so she could fetch water for her family or go to the grocery store before a mandatory curfew that's been imposed around the pandemic, which lasts all weekend - before that curfew went into effect.

MORALES: She was exhausted. And she had a full-time job on top of that. She was trying to hand-wash her clothes. She typically goes to the laundromat, but she wanted one less place where she could possibly expose her family to the infection.

BATES: Yeah, I'll bet she's exhausted. And if the reservation is a food desert, that means people are going to be less healthy because of how hard it is to get the right kind of food - you know, healthy food.

DEMBY: Right, exactly. And we know that these underlying conditions from bad nutrition are one of the things that are helping accelerate this virus. There's another thing that is sort of catalyzing this crisis that is particular to Navajo Nation, and it's that many, many people are immunocompromised because they live near land that has been literally rendered radioactive.

MORALES: From 1944 to 1986, mining companies blasted 30 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land. When the Energy Department - the U.S. Energy Department - had stockpiled enough for the Cold War, the companies left, abandoning more than 500 mines. I think it's 521 mines. And then since then, many Navajo have died of conditions linked to uranium contamination.


DEMBY: And again, in a region the size of West Virginia, there are about the same number of IHS health care centers as there are groceries. So there are 12 IHS centers on the entire reservation, and most of those are outpatient clinics.

MORALES: And so there are three hospitals on Navajo that have inpatient beds and ICU units. And actually, our staff, you know, 24/7 and work, like, of what you would imagine a typical hospital to work.

DEMBY: So in Navajo Nation, the IHS is overextended, it's under-resourced. And Laurel said the IHS centers are full of really dedicated doctors and nurses who are creative and good at improvising, you know, because they have to be. But they're trying to fight the spread of a contagious virus that is stretching hospitals to the breaking point even in places with things like paved roads and running water.

And so to get back to Mark's question, it behooves us all to pay more attention to what's happening in Indian Country not just right now, but even after coronavirus recedes from the headlines. And to get some insight on who we should be paying attention to, I decided to holler at one of CODE SWITCH's play cousins, Graham Lee Brewer. He's a reporter at High Country News. You can hear his voice sometimes on NPR. What's good, Graham?

GRAHAM LEE BREWER: Hey. What's up, Gene?

DEMBY: OK, so give us some Native sources that we should be paying attention to.

BREWER: So when it comes to understanding better Indian Country, it's just like any other localized reporting in the country writ large. I tell people to look at the local sources, and in this case, it would be tribal newspapers. For the Navajo Nation in particular, which has become a hot zone for COVID-19, the Navajo Times is an excellent source. They have excellent reporters who are part of those communities. I'd look to Arlyssa Becenti and Pauly Denetclaw in particular.

If you go a little bit further north and look at what's happening with Governor Noem, who has been trying to circumvent tribal sovereignty with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who's been locking down the reservation, that standoff has been covered really well by the West River Eagle - in particular, Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle. I think she's been doing a really good job of staying on top of that issue. And then you also have people like Savannah Maher, who is covering the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation for Wyoming Public Radio.

And then if you take a broader look, there's all sorts of Native reporters who are covering it on a national level. I think Antonia Gonzales at National Native News has been doing a really good job of compiling what is happening. And then you also have Christine Trudeau, who she just hired to help her specifically cover this pandemic.

So there's a lot of options, but I would really encourage your listeners to try to localize that as much as they can because there's a good chance that the tribe that's near them that they're concerned about has a tribal paper with reporters who are covering it every day.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Graham. Appreciate you, bro.

BREWER: Absolutely.

DEMBY: Graham Lee Brewer is a reporter for High Country News, and you can hear his voice on NPR.


BATES: OK. What else have we got today?

DEMBY: All right. So on our website, we've got a lot of your questions. Our assistant editor Natalie Escobar has been sifting through all of those, reporting them out, along with our intern Dianne Lugo - woot woot (ph). Natalie is here and joining us for her inaugural appearance on the CODE SWITCH podcast from her luxurious bedroom closet.

BATES: Yay. Welcome, Natalie, to the federation of closet broadcasters.

NATALIE ESCOBAR, BYLINE: (Laughter) Well, thank you for having me. It's good to be here.

DEMBY: All right, Natalie, so what does our inbox look like? What kind of questions are you getting? I imagine that they are all over the map.

ESCOBAR: Yeah. So a lot of them are about data. And a lot of questions are like this one that we got from a high schooler from North Carolina named Ama Kwabia (ph). She asked...

AMA KWABIA: So to me, it feels like we don't have much of a social safety net and that much of what we do have is tied into schools - meals, laundry, emotional support, even health care to an extent. How are we seeing kids of different races being impacted by this lack of protection differently?

BATES: That's a good question, Natalie. So...

ESCOBAR: So the answer to that is that it's been bad for kids of color - like, really bad. Dianne talked to Michelle Burris from The Century Foundation, which is a progressive think tank that researches education and the economy. And Ama's question hits right at what they've been finding. Two things that are particularly bad right now are food security and Internet access.

DEMBY: Right. So we know that black and Latinx and Native households, as we just heard, are much more likely to be food insecure.

ESCOBAR: Right. And as Ama said, schools have been lifelines for getting many kids nutritious food.

DEMBY: Right.

ESCOBAR: Free and reduced price lunch and school breakfast programs serve millions of kids, and those programs have been disrupted as schools have closed.

BATES: Yeah. Our friends on Team Ed - that's NPR's Education Desk - have been reporting on what schools have been trying to do about this.

ESCOBAR: Yeah. And across the country, that's looked like things like grab-and-go food programs, where students can pick up meals and snacks from a curbside, and even home delivery from school buses. And Congress has stepped in, too. There is a provision in a coronavirus aid bill that will take the value of those school meals and transfer the money directly to families. Those are families whose children receive those free or reduced priced meals.

DEMBY: OK. So what about Internet access?

ESCOBAR: So as schools have been transitioning to online learning, not everybody has the Internet. This is especially true for students of color. Michelle Burris from The Century Foundation talked to a teacher in St. Louis, and that teacher said that all of her students are black, and only around a quarter of them can log in to her Zoom classes every day.

BATES: Because her students don't have laptops at home and the libraries where they'd normally go to use them are closed, right?

ESCOBAR: Yeah. So now school and even government officials have started to encourage families to park their cars near places with Wi-Fi so that their kids can get work done. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but that's the situation we're in. It's far from ideal.

DEMBY: And you're basically asking people to be outside, too.

BATES: Yeah. People are doing what they have to do in order to try to get done what they need to get done.

DEMBY: Right. And this is the thing we talked about before, like, you know, in our Ron Brown reporting, is that the rules that schools play in certain communities goes way beyond learning. They have to do all this other work, you know, to give kids security. But, Natalie, you have another question for us, right?

ESCOBAR: Yeah, and this one's asking for advice, so I thought I'd throw it to you two as well. So this one's from Altinay Cortes (ph), and she's from Philly.

DEMBY: Woot woot (ph).

BATES: Of course.

ESCOBAR: And her question is this.

CORTES: Many of my black and Latinx family members are having trouble believing the severity of COVID-19. There is very little trust for the government and the medical community. With the context of our history, I understand their feelings and share them, too. However, I also believe social distancing is required to get through this pandemic. I have watched so many of my people out and about like nothing is happening. Now, this week, several close family members have been hospitalized with COVID-19. How can we survive if only some of us heed these warnings? Can we convince them to stay home?

DEMBY: This is too real.

BATES: You know, it's funny. We just had this same issue come up in one of our recent episodes from the census.


ESCOBAR: So a lot of my advice to people in this situation is, you know, help your family. Don't lecture them. They might be confused about what's safe, especially because every state has different guidelines and there's a lot of conflicting information out there.

BATES: True.

DEMBY: Yeah. And, like, the information's conflicting, and also, it's all, like, moving targets. Like, since this mess has started, what we know about coronavirus and how it works and who is vulnerable and what the symptoms are has seemed to change from week to week, if not day to day. Like, even for those of us who think of ourselves as staying up on everything and trying to take this thing very seriously, everything is so confusing, you know?

ESCOBAR: Yeah. So, you know, you got to work with that information on top of the long history of government and medical officials not doing right by people of color. So here's what I've been doing. Tell them it's better to be super safe than sorry, and help them get the stuff they might need - you know, the masks, the hand sanitizer and the disinfecting wipes - so that way, it doesn't sound like you're scolding them. And make sure your folks are following fact-based, reputable news sources. One pundit saying that social distancing is unnecessary can do a lot of damage.

BATES: And let them know that you still have to remind yourself to distance, to stay behind the line at the grocery store, to let the delivery guy put down that package and leave the front porch before you rush out to pick it up. You know, distance - it's hard to remember.

DEMBY: But, you know, it's family, and you miss them, I guess, you know, when they're not getting on your nerves.

BATES: (Laughter).

DEMBY: You know, try to reiterate that they should say hey on the phone or through some other mediated means. And in Philly, if you live nearby, you can stand across the street and still be 6 feet away 'cause our streets are so damn narrow. You can wave to your folks. You can do that. You can swing by without being that close.

BATES: Yeah. And I know I'm old, Gene, but there actually is another way from past times. Make a card or send a letter, like through the mail, delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, which is doing an incredible job during this pandemic. Tell your parents, your nana, your siblings, your best friends that you love them in an actual note with a stamp on it. Imagine that.

DEMBY: Don't forget to write clearly enough so they can read it, though. I'm looking at you, KGB.

BATES: Oh, yes. You're right. My penmanship is horrible.


DEMBY: All right, Natalie, thank you so much for mining the inbox for us.

BATES: Thank you.

DEMBY: Appreciate you.

ESCOBAR: Thanks for having me. And if you want to read more, you can find more questions and more responses to those questions on our website.


BATES: That's our show.

DEMBY: All right, y'all, please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. You can follow Shereen at @RadioMirage. You can follow Karen at @karenbates. And you can follow me at @GeeDee215. We want to hear from you. Our email is

BATES: And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was produced by Jess Kung. It was edited by Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: And we would be remiss if we did not shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Kumari Devarajan, LA Johnson and Leah Donnella. Our interns are Dianne Lugo and Isabella Rosario. I'm Gene Demby.

BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

BATES: See you. And don't forget; wash your hands.

DEMBY: Wash your hands.

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