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There’s another pandemic, one of poverty | Column
Poverty makes the coronavirus even worse for too many Americans, writes the CEO of Eckerd Connects.
Kira Burns and Francesca Betts, volunteers with the Feeding Tampa Bay and the Community Food Pantry prepare boxes and bags of groceries and even fresh flowers to guests driving through on April 1, 2020 in Tampa.
Kira Burns and Francesca Betts, volunteers with the Feeding Tampa Bay and the Community Food Pantry prepare boxes and bags of groceries and even fresh flowers to guests driving through on April 1, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 20, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is a societal earthquake across our nation. But the pandemic of poverty will be its tsunami, and the swell of this wave has begun. These two pandemics are combining forces in our communities, and millions caught in their wake are left with nowhere to turn.

This “invisible enemy” will expose an even deadlier “visible enemy” – which has been rooted in our communities for far too long. That enemy is the pandemic of poverty.

David Dennis, president and CEO of Eckerd Connects
David Dennis, president and CEO of Eckerd Connects [ Handout ]

The “pandemic of poverty” is not a temporary disaster (such as the spread of a viral disease) and doesn't let those who suffer catch their breath. On the contrary, poverty multiplies the chances of catching the disease, and then multiplies the negative impact caused.

America has a high proportion of minority families living in poverty. Louisiana’s Department of Health reported that 70% of coronavirus deaths in the state are attributed to African Americans, though they represent 32% of the population.

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Our new normal of induced restrictions and confinement reinforced for me the need for us all during this tragic time to be inspired to an even greater urgency. People in poverty live in a pervasive and chronic state of loss. My temporary annoyances and inconveniences are not temporary in their lives – they are ever-present, and often disastrous.

Many of the children and families we serve in our child-welfare system throughout the country come from families where spontaneous hugs and family activities are not simply postponed - they never existed. In fact, many homes are fully devoid of affection, and social distancing is more about avoiding physical abuse. Orders to stay home with no place to seek refuge may have forced some into the arms of their abusers.

These families are not annoyed at missing their routine health or dental checks -- they don’t have insurance to pay for those luxuries. They’re confronted by a reality of needing health care and being unable to access it. Many may have the virus but lack the resources to seek treatment. The CDC confirms that “residents of poor counties (have) a higher prevalence of poor health outcomes.”

Most people living in poverty are not having conversations about shutting down their businesses - they'd never even qualify for a bank loan. Far too many are not dealing with the loss of a job they love, since it's hard to lose what you never had. The fortunate ones are working the low-paying jobs we rely on, that put them at a high risk to contract the virus.

Few are depressed because their study abroad trips were cancelled. Even fewer are experiencing the frustrations of finishing their spring college courses online, as they could only ever dream of going to college.

They’re not having family discussions about needs versus wants from the grocery store. They can only afford to buy bare necessities. The pandemic has propelled them even further into food insecurity. They can’t afford to buy in bulk. They can barely afford to buy at all. Nearly half our population cannot afford a $400 emergency.

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While we navigate the pandemic challenges, let those of us not living in poverty consider our privilege. We are battling a physical virus which is deadly, but we believe to be temporary. Let’s remember our neighbors who live in the fear and hopelessness of a socioeconomic pandemic called poverty. The COVID-19 impact is and will continue to be catastrophic.

Our collective social efforts will flatten one curve – but the suffering of those living in poverty will continue. Sadly, many will lose their jobs and stumble further down the financial insecurity path. Workforce development efforts, including job training and upskilling of entry-level workers, and can help some recover, but we can do more.

We can, and must, prepare to protect all Americans. We must use collective unity, as well as private and public resources to build a dam, to stop the flood of poverty threatening to overtake the vulnerable like a tsunami after the COVID-19 quake.

Those of us who are privileged to stay home are flattening the curve of COVID-19. Now, let’s spend our energy, time, and resources raising a new curve of hope for our neighbors in 2020.

David Dennis is president and CEO of Eckerd Connects, which operates the Job Corps campus in Pinellas County, as well as provides workforce development, child welfare and juvenile justice services across 20 states including in the Tampa Bay area. Read more at Eckerd.org.