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In mid-March, weeks before Bay Area health officials recommended that people wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Pastor Michael McBride of The Way Christian Center in Berkeley began to worry about the potential danger the coronavirus posed to communities of color.
It quickly became clear to McBride, a faith leader well known for his work with Faith In Action’s Live Free initiative, a coalition of congregations advocating for social justice reforms, that waiting on federal, state and local governments to deliver protective equipment to these communities would be a mistake.
So, he decided to take action.
One of the first people McBride approached was comedian W. Kamau Bell. The two had struck up a friendship years ago, and McBride has appeared as a guest on Bell’s popular CNN program, United Shades of America.
Bell immediately saw the importance of a grassroots effort and signed on to the “Masks for the People” campaign, a crowdfunded supply chain of PPE — personal protective equipment like masks and gloves — for communities of color and other groups considered high-risk for COVID-19, including prisoners, the homeless, health providers and other essential workers, and elders.
“In America,” said Bell, “Black and brown folks are on the frontlines of everything.”
The campaign, which launched on April 6, promises to deliver “up to 5,000 PPE kits” for every $10,000 raised in donations.
In addition to distributing PPE in Oakland and other parts of the Bay Area, the campaign has focused on cities with high rates of coronavirus infection, such as New Orleans.
Bell’s promotion of the campaign on his popular Twitter account provided an early boost. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey follows Bell on Twitter, and Bell decided to “slide into Dorsey’s DMs” and made a direct pitch for funding. Dorsey responded, spoke with Pastor McBride on the phone, and made a $1 million donation. That’s what McBride and Bell had hoped to raise during the entire campaign.
“We could not have gotten this far without [Kamau Bell’s] help. We are appreciative of him,” said McBride.
Other well-known celebrities have since pitched in, including film director Ryan Coogler, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, activist Alicia Garza, and political commentator Angela Rye.
Bell said he’d like to see other wealthy Bay Area business leaders step up.
“The thing that is frustrating about the Bay Area is, because of tech money and gentrification, the money is here to fix these issues,” said Bell. “It’s great Jack [Dorsey] is doing that, but there’s a lot [more] money in the Bay Area.”
McBride and Bell give periodic live updates about the campaign on the Live Free Facebook page. Two weeks ago, they described recent shipments of masks and hand sanitizer to churches in Brooklyn, New York and Oakland.
Meanwhile, McBride’s early concern that COVID-19 would become a larger problem in communities of color has proven true. According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, African Americans are testing positive and dying from coronavirus at almost twice the rate of their white counterparts. This is attributed at least in part to the prevalence of pre-existing health conditions like asthma, hypertension and diabetes in Black communities, and a lack of access to healthcare and affordable, healthy food.
Women and people of color also make up a disproportionate number of frontline workers deemed essential during the pandemic.
Amidst the tragedy, Bell sees an opportunity to examine and reshape society for the better.
“I hope that COVID-19 reveals that the system is flawed from top to bottom,” said Bell. “We have a chance to do the work to change the whole system, but we know that a large percent of the country thinks that this whole thing is a TV show and they don’t even care that the season finale is their own death.”
McBride believes a better future is possible after the pandemic.
“We will have a new world to create on the other side of the coronavirus, and may we meet that mandate of creating a new world with a righteous imagination and a very wide and big heart.”