Unmasking the Truth In Orange County

Written by Abby Reyes

July 2, 2020

I live in Orange County, CA, where some of our neighbors are pushing to reopen as quickly as possible. Last month our county medical director required people here to wear masks in public before the governor did. The most vocal people for re-opening did not want to wear masks. Their words reminded me of the rhetoric following 9-11, when store owners posted window signs with an American flag depicted in the shape of a shopping bag, sporting the motif, “America: Open for Business.” Now, as then, there is a veneer of bravado, a callous gesture of disregard and wishful thinking in the face of inconvenient facts, as though we are counting on the only play in the playbook that we can remember. When the going gets tough, buy something. 

The county medical director stood firm and would not rescind the mask order. After a barrage of death threats, vilification, and a 24 hour protest at the home she shares with her family of three young children, the county medical director resigned. This resignation is part of a pattern playing out in public health agencies across the country. Within days of her resignation, the interim director acquiesced and lifted the mask order. Local crowds along the coast cheered it as a victory. 

If there is any mask for us to remove, it is this one: Our county-level numbers looked good because in whiter and wealthy coastal communities, where people have been able to stay home, the curve is practically flat, which masks the fact that in inland communities, where the people live who service the lifestyles of our coastal communities, provide the essential functions of our county, and sit in our jails and detention centers, the numbers of sick, hospitalized, and dying people are rapidly growing.

When unmasked, Orange County’s disaggregated numbers reveal that COVID-19 hot spots are concentrated in zip codes of low-income communities of color. Even these numbers don’t tell us what’s happening with our Indigenous counterparts. If our neighbors want to unmask and reopen, let us be brave enough to demand that we unmask the true story and keep it in the center of our vision. If we don’t, we all pay the price.

People who are essential and service workers are not staying home. They can’t. As more employers say that it is time to come back, more workers face the grim reality of dispossession, the dispossession that results from the decades our country has spent eroding the safety net and chipping away at the social contract, mechanisms that were meant to prevent people from falling through the cracks of the extractive economy in the best of times. No one said anything about what would happen during the worst of times. 

The word “apocalypse” means to uncover, to reveal. This is the moment we are in.

Writing about the climate crisis my friend Hop Hopkins says we can’t go on with business as usual without sacrifice zones. And we can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people. And we can’t have disposable people without racism. Fix the racism and we are on our way to fixing the climate crisis. The same is true of the pandemic. 

Over the past few weeks, neighborhoods across our county have joined communities across the land to come out onto the streets to defend Black life. Neighbors are talking with one another about how to move beyond the lie of white supremacy and anti-Black racism here. Ending racism here means moving beyond acceptance that some people’s lives are disposable. Moving beyond acceptance of sacrifice zones. Right now, in Orange County, that’s what we have: a plan for reopening the county that accepts sacrifice zones drawn along the boundaries of race and class. Let your sight rest here for a minute. 

If we are brave enough to keep the truth in the center of our vision, we would see that sacrifice zones make absolutely no sense. A sacrifice zone anywhere sets the bar for public health and safety deathly low. Our fates, always linked, are now revealed as such, now more than ever. We know this interdependence to be true. The right hand would never hurt the left hand because they are part of the same body. It wouldn’t make any sense. But we’re so used to playing by the playbook of separation and supremacy that to act upon this knowledge requires an invigorating exercise of imagination.

Reopening Orange County without sacrifice zones allows us to rethink and reimagine our very definitions of public safety, of public health, and of economic vitality. We have a chance right now to make sure that our pandemic mitigation, response, and recovery actions are aimed at protecting and fortifying the most vulnerable and disproportionately affected peoples and the places they live. As Sonya Renee Taylor reminds us, “normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” 

This post was adapted from a longer piece titled Why This Is The Work, which appeared in the UCI Community Resilience blog on July 1, 2020.

Abby Reyes

Abby Reyes directs Community Resilience Projects in the Office of Sustainability at the University of California, Irvine. The projects are intended to foster people-centered and inclusive solutions to our climate challenges. At UC Irvine School of Law, Reyes also teaches a seminar on Law and Social Movements: Race, Place, and Climate Change. From 2013-2016, Abby directed the UCI Sustainability Initiative and was a co-Principal Investigator of the FloodRISE project, leading the Research Integration and Impact Team. She co-chaired the Faculty Engagement and Education Working Group of the UC Global Climate Leadership Council and oversees UCI’s Sustainability Resource Center. She has provided facilitation and design services for the UC-CSU Knowledge Action Network on Transformative Climate and Sustainability Education, UCI Salton Sea Initiative, UCI OCEANS, Research Justice Learning Community, Nexus 2014, the Borrego Stewardship Council, and is a lead trainer for UC climate and food fellows in transformative sustainability leadership. She has also facilitated advocacy and research collaboration with indigenous communities in California, Colombia, and the Philippines, and contributed to landmark international human rights and environmental cases in domestic federal courts. Reyes completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University and JD at UC Berkeley Law. She clerked for the Honorable Richard A. Paez on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and recently finished her term co-chairing the board of directors of EarthRights International. She is a partner in the National Association of Climate Resilience Planners and an ambassador for the Pollination Project. Reyes received UC Irvine’s 2015 Excellence in Leadership Award and a 2016 California Higher Education Sustainability Best Practices Award. She has a TEDx talk on How to Come Home.

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