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‘We’re not all in this together’

Black communities are reeling from pandemic and economic hardships

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

The first segment of “COVID at the Margins” featured Christian Brooks (top left), Associate for Domestic Issues for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness; the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins (top right), OPW’s coordinator; Rachel Ollivierre (bottom right), an advocate for black immigrants in the Northeastern U.S.; and Rev. Roslyn Bouier (bottom left), executive director of the Brightmoor Connection emergency food pantry in Detroit.

LOUISVILLE — The feel-good line “We’re all in this together” has been an oft-repeated refrain during the coronavirus crisis, but for some minorities, feeling the brunt of the pandemic, it doesn’t ring true.

“I see the commercials and I kind of get upset,” said the Rev. Roslyn Bouier, executive director of the Brightmoor Connection food pantry in hard-hit Detroit. “We’re not all in this together. If we were all in this together, we would all have the same resources.”

Bouier was featured in the first segment of “COVID at the Margins,” a new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) discussion series focusing on the experiences and struggles of communities of color during the global pandemic.

Unequal access to resources is resulting in “the deaths of black and brown people … and poor people,” Bouier contends in the segment, “Black Communities’ Experience with COVID-19.”

Bouier described how poverty and other economic hardships, such as water shutoffs for nonpayment, are hurting people during a time when frequent hand-washing, disinfecting of surfaces, wearing masks and practicing social distancing are recommended to stay well or reduce the spread of the virus.

If everyone were truly in the same boat, she said, “we would all have running water in our home. We would all be making earned paid sick time, we would all make livable wages.”

In reality, there’s “not enough to pay all of the utility costs and the rent and just to sustain the family,” she said. “When we talk about sheltering in, most people cannot afford to purchase two weeks’ worth of food and go home and stay. That’s just not the norm.”

She also talked about residents being made to jump through too many hoops to qualify for aid to alleviate water shutoffs. “There are too many obstacles,” such as completing lengthy applications and having to upload documentation, she said.

Bouier was joined by Rachel Ollivierre, a market analyst and outspoken advocate for black immigrants in the Northeast, as well as moderator Christian Brooks, Associate for Domestic Issues for the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness (OPW), and the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, OPW’s coordinator.

Ollivierre discussed various life circumstances that she said put black immigrants at risk for COVID-19, including working multiple jobs, often in health-care settings, to pay expenses and support family in their home countries; being dependent on public transportation; being exhausted; and living in shared residences, sometimes with multiple generations.

“You need to have space,” she said. “You need to have distance, but that’s not possible if you’re living a life of poverty where you’re working multiple jobs and you’re living in very close quarters.”

Plus, “you’re bringing those viruses and all those germs from those two jobs into your household,” she said.

Brooks raised the issue of limited access to personal protective equipment on the job. “If the doctors and the nurses aren’t getting the PPE, then we know that the people who are cleaning the rooms aren’t getting it. The people who are cooking aren’t getting it.”

She also spoke about supervisors taking advantage of the fact that some workers don’t know their rights or would prefer not to rock the boat.

“COVID at the Margins” is illuminating these issues to help people understand the insidious nature of racism, hear directly from individuals about what’s happening in communities, and learn ways to get involved.

Ollivierre suggested providing communities with PPE so that they can change masks regularly, directing resources toward cleaning up neighborhoods and ethnic stores that might be not well-equipped to do so, fighting for workers’ rights, including the need for proper time off, and educating them to be better self-advocates.

“Many people when they come to the United States, they aren’t coming with an advanced college degree,” she said. “They’re coming with maybe a high school degree from a third-world country, and that really limits your ability to understand what your rights are.”

Bouier also made suggestions for getting involved, such as advocating for one fair wage, pushing for paid sick time and contacting political leaders on issues such as the water shutoffs.

“We’ve got to address the policies that are in place because that’s where the long-term change is going to come from,” she said.

“COVID at the Margins” continues on Monday with a segment on the politically fueled backlash against Asians and Asian Americans during the pandemic.

The series is a joint project of several ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), including the Office of Public Witness and Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries; the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People; the Presbyterian Hunger Program; the Office of Racial and Intercultural Justice; and the Presbyterian Office of Immigration.

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