Point of View: Conspiring pandemics in our country

Featured in: The Oklahoman
April 29, 2020
By david Dennis

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

The “pandemic of poverty” has long been rooted in our communities. It is not a temporary disaster (like the spread of a viral disease) and doesn’t let those suffering catch their breath. On the contrary, poverty multiplies the chances of catching diseases, and then multiplies their negative impact.

America has a high proportion of minority families living in poverty. In Louisiana, 70% of coronavirus deaths are attributed to African Americans, though they represent 32% of the population.

Our suddenly induced restrictions caused an epiphany for me: People in poverty live in a chronic state of loss. My temporary inconveniences are not temporary in their lives — they are ever-present and disastrous.

Many of those we serve in our country’s child welfare system come from families where hugs and activities aren’t simply postponed, they never existed. In fact, many homes are fully devoid of affection; social distancing is about avoiding abuse. COVID-19 has forced some into the arms of abusers.

These families aren’t annoyed at missing routine doctor appointments; they don’t have insurance to pay for those luxuries. Many have the virus but lack resources to seek treatment. The CDC confirms that “residents of poor counties (have) a higher prevalence of poor health outcomes.”

Most are not having conversations about closing their businesses — they would never even qualify for a bank loan. They aren’t dealing with the loss of a beloved career. The fortunate ones are working low-paying jobs we rely on, at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

We are battling a physical virus that is deadly, but likely temporary. Let’s remember our neighbors who live in the hopelessness of a socio-economic pandemic called poverty.

Our collective social efforts will flatten the curve of COVID-19, but the suffering of the poor will continue. Many will fall further into financial insecurity. We must prepare to protect them with workforce development efforts. We can build a dam to stop the flood of poverty threatening to overtake the vulnerable like a tsunami after the COVID-19 quake. Let’s spend our energy raising a new curve of hope for our neighbors in 2020.

Dennis, former director of the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, is president and CEO of Eckerd Connects, a nonprofit providing child welfare, workforce development and Job Corps services.