Minnesota’s racial and ethnic disparities have played out in myriad ways, from education gaps to home ownership, and from income differences to health outcomes. COVID-19 has reinforced the fact that communities of color in Minnesota – especially Black communities – face greater health risks than their White counterparts. While Black Minnesotans make up just over 5 percent of the total population, they account for more than 20 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.

To address the need for health and safety among residents, women in neighborhoods all over Minneapolis and Saint Paul have organized free mask giveaways. Thousands of free masks and bottles of hand sanitizer have been distributed in North Minneapolis, Cedar-Riverside and Saint Paul Midway neighborhoods, with plans for giveaways continuing through June.

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Editor’s Note: As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds in Minnesota, certain details in our stories about the impact of the virus may become outdated within hours, days or weeks of our publication. For the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus in Minnesota, please visit the websites for the Office of Governor Tim Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan or the Minnesota Department of Health.

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Longtime Cedar-Riverside resident Ruqia Abdi saw that many people in her neighborhood were not wearing masks. When she started asking why, she learned that most of them did not have them.

“This pandemic is aggressive, and we need to do aggressive service right now,” said Abdi. So she started making calls.

“Many other people reached out to me and said, ‘What can we do?’ So it was amazing, really, and I’m so grateful. When the masks starting coming in and we hit 100, I said, ‘I’m not going to wait until we hit 200. I’m going to get started.’”

The first Cedar-Riverside giveaway happened during the week leading up to the end of Ramadan, a major holiday for Muslim families to gather and celebrate together. Her faith drove Abdi to collaborate with neighbors to help families in need of protective equipment.

“During Ramadan, this month, it’s like spiritual revival,” said Abdi. “Giving out gives you more credit. Instead of getting one class and three credits from college, it’s like you’re getting times 10 credits! What’s a better time for giving to people than this?”

In North Minneapolis, Nekima Levy Armstrong has organized several mask giveaways. Working with a team of volunteers, pastors and medical professionals, Levy Armstrong has coordinated the distribution of thousands of masks. During a giveaway on the day before the start of the Minneapolis order making masks required, the team distributed more than 1,200 masks, 500 bottles of hand sanitizer, and free diapers and baby clothing – all in just over an hour.

On the same day in Saint Paul’s Midway neighborhood, volunteers set up outside of Cub Foods, and walked up and down light rail stations distributing masks and sanitizer.

“I’m seeing neighbors that need this and we made it happen,” said Abdi, reflecting after Cedar-Riverside’s first giveaway. “They were so grateful. They were praying for me on the spot, thanking me for my service, and that was really an inspiration.”

And that inspiration was mutual: Abdi’s actions have inspired others to donate materials, offer sewing machines and donate masks for future events.

“My hope is that every resident in Cedar-Riverside will not have to think, ‘Where do I get a mask?’ But we will make it available for everybody.”

Abdi plans to continue distributions every week, as long as masks are available.

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In collaboration with Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE), we’ve shared a range of stories about Muslim Sheroes in Minnesota – women who are making a difference in their community without waiting for permission. Get inspired by their stories. 

As the Stay At Home and Stay Safer orders went into effect, health clinics across the state needed to swiftly adopt telemedicine technology and protocols in order to “see” patients for their medical appointments. One Greater Minnesota reporter Kaomi Goetz examined how rural clinics have made the shift and whether telemedicine will stick around even after the pandemic subsides.

As Minnesotans looks for ways to show their support for healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, we took a look back in time to celebrate the contributions that four women – all named Ruth – made to the state’s public health system.