Decades of Systemic Discrimination Create Perfect Storm for Destruction

 

Vangela M. Wade is the president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a public service law firm that fights discrimination, economic, and social injustice through legal representation, policy advocacy, and community education. 

New data from the Mississippi Department of Health reveals that COVID-19 is taking a devastating toll on African Americans.

At 38 percent of our state’s population, we constitute 52 percent of the state’s known cases.  And the numbers are even more stark for death: 71% of the lives COVID-19 has claimed are African American. Without change, this disease will cripple Black communities across Mississippi.  

These racial statistics on COVID-19 are terrifying, but not surprising. Decades of systemic and structural discrimination have blocked African Americans from full access to health care, employment, education, housing, food security, and more. All of this makes African Americans susceptible to major health issues — like cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes — that worsen the impacts of COVID-19. The Health Department data reflects this sad reality.

Our state leaders must take immediate action to help African Americans and all of Mississippi’s poor.  

First and foremost, it’s crucial to expand the Medicaid health insurance program. Expansion will ensure that more people have health coverage and can receive care if they become sick, without worrying about large medical bills. It will also help Mississippi’s workforce stay healthy and be ready to work again after the crisis is over. Most states have already taken this step.   

Division of Medicaid must maximize health insurance coverage for COVID-19 testing, evaluation, and treatment to the greatest extent possible. Additionally, it should ensure Emergency Medicaid coverage without cost-sharing of COVID-19 testing, evaluation, and treatment for any individual with symptoms reasonably consistent with the virus, including immigrants.

Furthermore, the Division of Medicaid ought to eliminate administrative barriers to the maximum extent authorized under federal law. For example, it should avoid losses of coverage by suspending Medicaid eligibility redeterminations and periodic wage matches during the pandemic. 

If the Reeves administration decides to close the schools for the rest of the academic year — which is appropriate given that the virus continues to spread — that decision needs to be made as soon as possible. An updated plan regarding school closures is necessary so that school districts, families, childcare centers, etc. can make plans for the remainder of the school year.

We call on Governor Reeves’ administration to increase broadband internet access so all students, particularly those in rural areas, have access to e-learning. Some school districts have transitioned to a full e-learning model because they have the resources to provide students with computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other resources. Other districts are stuck with paper packets. We encourage state agencies to mitigate the effects of disparities in broadband internet access on public school students as much as possible.

The Reeves administration needs to work with the Mississippi Department of Education to ensure that school districts are not neglecting students with disabilities. We need guidance that helps school districts understand how to provide special education services without fear of liability if they are unable to provide the exact services stipulated in the individualized education program. 

We must also ensure that the Mississippi Employment Security Commission is equipped to distribute unemployment benefits quickly. Unemployment has skyrocketed due to the pandemic. Last week alone, 46,500 people filed unemployment claims, and that was with many more still unable to get through due to swamped phone lines and website glitches. These Mississippians need financial relief fast. 

COVID-19 is poised to ravage African American and poor communities across Mississippi. But with bold, big action, lawmakers can turn this around. 

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