As we gear up for a mostly maskless fall semester at the University of New Mexico, students in marginalized communities who are at a significantly higher risk than others during the COVID-19 pandemic are worried about the additional health risks that could affect them now that there is not a campus-wide mask mandate.
Going along with UNM’s “Bring Back the Pack” initiative, the University announced that individuals who have been fully vaccinated have the option to no longer wear a mask on campus (except for the Health Sciences Center campus buildings); individuals that are not fully vaccinated will continue to be required to wear one on campus grounds, following nationwide CDC guidelines.
UNM student Erin Scott has asthma, and said the COVID-19 virus puts her at a much higher risk than other individuals. Asthma is one of the certain medical conditions that the CDC has listed as being a risk factor that may make individuals more likely to get severe reactions from COVID-19.
Scott said she feels safe and fairly protected from the virus because she’s fully vaccinated but, even though she’s looking forward to being back on campus, she still has some worries.
“This (mask policy) feels like a good idea, but also I’ve been using a mask for a year so the thought of people breathing on me is a source of anxiety,” Scott said.
An ongoing problem in the pandemic is achieving health equity, defined by the CDC as the instance in which “all members of society enjoy a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible;” currently, many communities are more at-risk than others due to discrimination, disproportionate healthcare access and use, essential occupation settings, gaps in education or wealth, and crowded housing, according to the CDC.
Lifting the mask policies at UNM also impacts UNM’s international community very specifically, especially those who are currently outside of the U.S. According to the New York Times’ COVID-19 vaccination tracker, most Latin American countries still have 40 or fewer per 100 people vaccinated.
International student Arianna Santamaria is from Ecuador and has not returned to the U.S. since summer of 2020 because of the pandemic. Because the vaccine isn’t as easily accessible in other countries, she said some international students may not have the luxury of being vaccinated before returning to campus. Santamaria also brought up that some students may not be honest about being vaccinated if they don’t want to wear a mask.
“I’m a little bit worried because I know that there are a lot of people like me who haven’t been able to be vaccinated or don’t want to,” Santamaria said. “And you can’t really know who has been vaccinated. I feel a little bit uncomfortable.”
International students currently located in the U.S. are also suffering because the support that those students received prior to the pandemic has been waning over the past year, and the mental health of these students has suffered because of that, Huanjia Zhang reported for Science Line.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of stress atop the challenging experience of pursuing higher education in the U.S.,” Zhang reported. “Public health measures like social distancing have compounded the loneliness and feelings of homesickness felt by many international students, who already have to navigate language and cultural barriers that contribute to their sense of isolation.”
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Annya Loya is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annyaloya