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Today in the Mission Yearbook

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


Poor People’s Campaign report maps the intersections of poverty, race and Covid

July 28,  2022

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. (Courtesy of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations)

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., recently to release a detailed report connecting information about Covid 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.”

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 U.N. 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 rate of people who lived in richer counties.
  • During the deadliest phases of the pandemic, 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.

“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.”

And yet, said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, President Joe Biden has 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 U.N. 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.”

“We can’t worry anymore about why they aren’t listening,” Barber said during a question-and-answer session concluding the 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.”

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

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Poor People’s Campaign report

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Barbara Betts, Manager of Presbyterian Distribution Services, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
Teresa Bidart, Bilingual Mission Specialist, Self-Development of People, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

God, who created the world when all was chaos and void — as we wander, not knowing where we go, and when all seems dark — say again, we pray, “Let there be light.” Amen.