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‘COVID-19 did not discriminate, but we did’

Poor People’s Campaign report maps the intersections of poverty, race and COVID-19

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The Poor People’s Campaign, co-chaired by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and theologian the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, took to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Monday to release a detailed report connecting information about COVID-19 deaths to demographic characteristics including income, race, health insurance status and more.

You’ve got to let us wail,” Theoharis said, quoting her “dear sister and leader” in the PPC, Kelly Greer. “Wail for children, elders and siblings who are no more.”

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“As we are showing today,” Theoharis said of the report, available here with the executive summary found here, “it is the poor and low-income who have been hurt first and worst and are feeling the greatest loss still.”

“Our nation has gotten accustomed to death, especially when it’s the death of the poor,” said Theoharis, who also directs the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary. “To look at this report is to hold up a mirror on our nation.”

Among the findings in the report, completed with help from Howard University and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and titled “Mapping the Intersections of Poverty, Race and COVID-19”:

  • During the pandemic, people living in poorer counties died at nearly two times the rater of people who lived in richer counties.
  • During the deadliest phases of the pandemic, including the delta and omicron waves, poorer counties saw many times more deaths than wealthier counties. For example, during the fifth phase of the pandemic brought on by the delta variant, death rates were five times higher in low-income counties.
  • Vaccination status cannot explain all the variation of death rates across income groups.
  • Counties with the highest death rates are poorer than counties with lower death rates, with higher percentages of people of color.
  • In the poorest 10th percentile counties, more than half the population lives under 200% of the poverty line and people of color are over-represented. Uninsured rates are twice as high as the highest median income counties. More than half the people living in the poorest counties have received their second COVID-19 vaccination shots. About 31 million people live in these counties.

“As the report reveals, poverty was not tangential to the pandemic, but deeply embedded in its geography,” the executive summary states. “Yet, failing to consider how poverty intersected with race, gender, ability, insured status and occupation during the pandemic created blind spots in our policy and decision-making, which wrought unnecessary suffering to millions of people.”

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Associate Director of Advocacy for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), stands with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, who is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign with the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. (File photo courtesy of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations)

And yet, said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, President Joe Biden has for months declined to meet with poor and low-wealth people “to put addressing this front and center of the nation’s agenda.”

“We must put a face on human abuse,” Barber said. “We refuse to be silent anymore.”

“These findings should create righteous anger among people of conscience,” said Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs, an economics professor and author who directs the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. “It’s not individual choices or behavior. Systems are at work.”

“The findings are so contrary to a nation that claims to establish justice and are certainly contrary to God’s call to care for the least of these,” Sachs said. “COVID-19 did not discriminate, but we did.”

“We call on all Americans, and especially President Biden, to look at this data to understand how unjust the system has been and take actions to rectify it,” Sachs said. “President Biden, meet poor people. Meet the people Rev. Barber has been mobilizing. It’s not good keeping poor people away. They can tell you the reality on the ground. Meet them in the White House … This report is more reason to have that meeting.”

By the numbers cited in the report, “more white folk died” during the pandemic than people of color, Barber said. “Black people experienced a higher percentage, but more white people died related to poverty and inequity. We have to tell both stories.”

Shailly Gupta Barnes

“Too often, we blame the poor for what are systemic policy decision outside their hands,” said Shailly Gupta Barnes, policy director for the PPC and the Kairos Center. Those policy decisions include those around the minimum wage; who has health care, paid leave and childcare; how much debt we owe; even who gets clean water to drink. “It was a choice not to see poverty [during the pandemic}, a choice to have these death rates and not prioritize the poor,” Barnes said. “It’s years of policies that predate the pandemic, but this isn’t the way it has to be. We can choose to fight poverty and not the poor.”

Jessica Jimenez, a single mother of three boys living with her parents in Bronx County, said the pandemic forced her into a constant choice between “paying my bills or putting food on the table.” Her younger sister worked at a hospital and was sickened by the coronavirus three times. Her father “lost a lot of his close friends.” Her children were confused during the early stages of the pandemic and asked their mother, “Why can’t we go outside?”

“It took a mental toll on them and myself,” she said. “This is why we need the Poor People’s Campaign, someone to fight for our people.”

“This report is painful. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality,” said Dr. Sharrelle Barber, the daughter of William Barber, a social epidemiologist and a member of the PPC’s Health Justice Advisory Committee. “More troubling is our inhumane acceptance of mass death and our rush to return to normal. The pandemic isn’t over until it’s over everywhere.”

“The coronavirus hit us hard here in Mississippi,” Fred Womack of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign said from Jackson, Mississippi. “We went through periods when we lost three or four family members at a time.”

“We have been suffering since colonization,” said Vanessa Nosie, deputy public information officer for the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Nosie said federally-recognized tribes “got the vaccine early on — not to benefit us, but we were the guinea pig. It was sad to see how we were first in line. Then the studies [proving the vaccines’ efficacy] came out, and it was hard for us to get this vaccine. That speaks to how the federal government sees our people.”

“We can’t worry anymore about why they aren’t listening,” William Barber said during a question-and-answer session concluding the 100-minute news conference, which can be viewed here. “There has never been a listening until there’s been a massive moral movement,” a movement that “builds power among people hurting and oppressed and presents the nation an agenda for saving itself.”

“There is no way to address death without somebody coming alive,” Barber said, citing the biblical passage where Jesus’ message and mission are finally recognized by one being put to death alongside him.

“Let’s get to work, y’all,” Barber said.

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