NAACP COVID-19 Tele-Town Hall Addresses Community Concerns

As the nation shifts to urgency on COVID-19, the NAACP convened an hourlong town hall via teleconference on March 15 to share information and expertise that can protect communities.

The NAACP Emergency Tele-Town Hall included medical, policy, faith and philanthropic leaders who discussed how individuals can prevent coronavirus infection, how government leaders are taking action and how everyone can ease the inequities caused by its spread.

More than 21,000 people participated in the call while another 4,500 joined online.

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said the organization is focused on advocating for the most vulnerable communities regarding equity in the coronavirus response and recovery.

“As someone who lived through Hurricane Katrina, I can tell you firsthand: When government is not operating in a space where support is provided for all communities, there are many communities that suffer,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure we get as much information to communities as timely as possible.”

COVID-19 is the novel coronavirus first identified in December in China that has infected people in the United States and worldwide. The outbreak was upgraded to a global pandemic in March by the World Health Organization. Since then, the United States has banned international travel to several countries including China and Egypt as well as most of Europe.

COVID-19 illness is marked by fever, dry cough and fatigue that can lead to severe upper respiratory distress and death. As of March 17, there were at least 4,482 cases in the United States and at least 86 fatalities, according to The New York Times.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said small business loans were provided in the first coronavirus package passed by Congress.

She urged listeners to contact their senators about the new Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which was passed by the House and awaits Senate approval. The bill aims to save lives by offering free coronavirus testing, two weeks of paid sick leave, up to three months of paid family and medical leave, expanded unemployment benefits for furloughed workers, food assistance and increased federal funds for Medicaid.

“People shouldn’t have to choose between staying home and putting food on the table and feeding their babies,” Harris said.

Dr. Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as well as a former acting director of the CDC, urged support of the emergency legislation.

“If you can slow the rate of disease so it doesn’t hit a community as hard, you’ll leave room … in the hospital for those who are going to need that care,” he said.

Indeed. During the teleconference town hall, Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general, warned that “things will get worse before they get better.”

Adams, an anesthesiologist who is a member of the White House coronavirus task force, offered an update on the administration’s efforts to “limit infections and decrease deaths” such as social distancing.

“We are at a crucial inflection point in our fight,” Adams said. “It’s going to be a tough several weeks ahead … but we need to lean into it now so that we see the positive effects three to four weeks down the line.”

Increased testing will be available this week across the nation for health care workers and seniors with chronic health conditions, who are the most vulnerable for illness and death, Adams said. Listeners were invited to visit for the latest from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Healthcare Ready executive director Nicolette Louissaint, Ph.D., discussed the medically fragile, those who may face more severe illness because of COVID-19 or have trouble maintaining their chronic diseases amid the pandemic response — and the socially vulnerable “who may be challenged by the downstream impact of the public health response” such as school closures, impacts to small businesses and social distancing.

Several nonprofit and faith leaders addressed those concerns.

La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said her organization seeks to fill gaps during this time with flexibility and by redeploying funding.

“When we have pandemics like this, vulnerable communities are stretched even further,” Tabron said, noting four major issues: food insecurity, transportation, utilities (namely internet access and the digital divide) and work including child care.

Nate Miles, vice president of strategic initiatives at Eli Lilly and Co., and a member of the NAACP Foundation’s board of trustees, addressed the affordability challenges for insulin-dependent individuals. Insulin discounts and generic options are available by calling 833-808-1234 and free insulin can be accessed through the Lilly Cares program, he said.

It’s an uncertain time in which people are told to stay home, practice social distancing and good hygiene. Restaurants, fitness centers and even places of worship have closed to decrease spread of the virus. Life as we know it has been disrupted and there’s a sense of anxiety in the air. This is where the faith community comes in to help ease fears.

Rev. Traci Blackmon, a national officer with the United Church of Christ and a St. Louis-area pastor, urged people to “plan and not panic” by relying on trusted faith leaders and public health officials while continuing to support their local congregations through alternative methods of worship.

“Closing the building does not mean that we have closed the church,” Blackmon said. “Faith and faithfulness are not the enemies of facts. … We can both believe and prepare. We can trust God and still trust science.”

The NAACP’s Environment Climate Justice (ECJ) program published a resource guide — “Ten Equity Implications of the Coronavirus COVID-19 Outbreak in the United States: The Imperative for Civil Rights Advocacy, Monitoring and Enforcement” — which notes the impact the virus can have on communities of color including the special health needs of vulnerable populations including seniors, incarcerated people and those with disabilities; concerns about frontline health workers; the lack of accessibility to test kits; food insecurity caused by school closings; consequences of social distancing for voting and Census 2020; and the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals during coronavirus remediation.

The ECJ has recommended adopting policies that include increasing access to child care, paid leave for all workers, food and housing assistance, extended data collection periods for the census and adjustments for voting.

The teleconference is the first of several coronavirus policy and information outreaches, including webinars, for the public and NAACP members.

— Cindy George is a Houston-based journalist.

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