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Coping with COVID-19: Looking out for the highly ‘vulnerable’

The elderly and working poor, specifically those in African-American communities that experience the highest poverty rates in Shelby County, are the focus of some local leaders as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic become ever more real.

“Many African Americans and the working poor will be affected by the domino effect of this gradual shut down more than anyone because of the lack of insurance, resources and food access — along with employment challenges,” Tennessee state Rep. Antonio Parkinson said.

Parkinson feels the state was not prepared for the severity of the virus’ impact. As of Wednesday, there were 73 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Tennessee, including four in Shelby County.

And while Gov. Bill Lee has declared a state of emergency, along with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s recent emergency declaration, local leaders said they’re not sure if the actions will be enough to support the African-American community.

Gallery: Photos by Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises

Beginning Monday, March 23, students under the age of 18 can receive a free meal M-F, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m., at 60-plus sites across Shelby County. The child must be present to receive a meal. SCS Staff will be taking all proper precautions to ensure safe food handling and minimize risk for all students and families who may pick up meals. View a complete list of locations here.

In an effort to provide some relief to working class families, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a multibillion-dollar bill Friday that guarantees sick leave for workers and their families affected by the coronavirus. It also injects funds into state unemployment reserves and guarantees free COVID-19 testing.

The Senate passed the bill Wednesday and President Trump signed it into law a few hours later.

In an emergency tele-call hosted by the NAACP Monday, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris urged attendees to reach out to their senators in support of what she considered a “crucial bill for communities of color.”

“The devil is in the details,” Parkinson said of the bill.  “No one knows who will be eligible for that relief. And how it needs to be paid back. And more importantly do we thinking it’s going to be enough for our people?”

The state representative said he and other leaders will continue working in the meantime by introducing legislation at the state level that will provide SNAP and emergency unemployment benefits for those in need.

And while he said he’s optimistic about the success of those efforts, they are still in the preliminary phases.

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer and Memphis City Councilwoman Michalyn Easter-Thomas are looking for more immediate results from the county. The two issued a letter to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and Sheriff Floyd Bonner calling for them to issue a freeze on evictions for the foreseeable future.

“If people aren’t able to go to work and pay their bills, we don’t want to exasperate our already high level of poverty in Memphis by increasing evictions because people cannot pay their bills,” Easter-Thomas said via a live video on her website. “We want to keep the average worker in mind.”

The President said Wednesday the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has halted all evictions and foreclosures until May 1 amid the coronavirus pandemic. The order only applies to HUD-owned properties. There are roughly 6.7 million residents in HUD housing.

Like local officials, however, housing advocates and lawyers across the country are demanding a nationwide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

In their letter, Easter-Thomas and Sawyer also urged the release of low-level non-violent inmates in order to curb widespread COVID-19 transmission in county jails.

Monday, the Shelby County Public Defender’s office issued a similar plea. Public Defender Phyllis Aluko called for the release of the office’s clients who are being detained solely because they cannot afford bond.

“Allowing these clients to be released pending resolution of their charges will ensure that they are not forced to choose between remaining incarcerated where they will be particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of Covid-19 and accepting a plea bargain solely to get out of an environment that poses a risk to their health,” a press release issued by the office stated.

Two inmates at Shelby County Division of Corrections have been tested for COVID-19 after showing symptoms of viral infection. The results of those tests are still pending.

Public safety isn’t the only concern that leaders said can drastically affect African- American communities. School closures and their impact on education also is a top concern during the Covid-19 pandemic.

To combat the issue, Easter-Thomas and Sawyer also penned a letter to Gov. Lee calling for the suspension of state testing for the 2019-20 school year. This comes on the heels of Shelby County Schools’ recent announcement to extend school closures until at least April 6.

Legislation was introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly earlier this week to suspend state testing and waive the required 180 days of classroom instruction this year.

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases climb nationally and locally, leaders said they’re hoping to mitigate the spread of the virus by providing more access to healthcare in communities of color.

Christ Community Health Services recently announced the opening of a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in the parking lot of its location at 3360 Third St. Testing will take place by appointment only, Saturday, March 21, from 8:30 am to 11:30 am.

“Christ Community serves the individuals who have great need,” Shantelle Leatherwood, chief executive officer, said. “We focused on the Third Street location because of the elderly population in that area and we want to ensure the individuals with a need have access to care.”

Pastor Ricky Floyd, senior pastor of Pursuit of God Transformation Center in Frayser has a similar goal to serve individuals in need of assistance.

He and his team, in partnership with the Mid-South Food Bank are preparing to give away hundreds of food baskets Friday to residents who reside in the 38127 and 38107 Zip codes (Frayser and part of North Memphis).

“We are in a community that is already challenged with the lack of resources and in a crisis or a time of panic, the law of self-preservation kicks in. We as a community and especially the church must take this crisis opportunity to display to the community who Christ is,” Floyd said.

With the uncertainty of what’s to come surrounding the impact of the growing pandemic, leaders are hoping their effort will alleviate some of the anxiety and hardships that residents may potentially face. But, they’ve made it clear, the work cannot be done in silos.

“The pandemic is going to force the African-American community to become the village again,” Rep. Parkinson said.  “It’s going to force us to share resources, help out neighbors and create even stronger bonds with children, parents, and communities.”

Free Internet access and Low-Cost Broadband?

To help families shelter in place through this health crisis, some utility, phone and cable companies are taking steps to connect low-income families to digital technology during this critical time.

For example, Comcast Corp. is offering free access to its Xfinity WiFi hot spots for everyone, including non-subscribers, for the next 60 days. To find an Xfinity WiFi Hotspot, check the hotspot location map at wifi.xfinity.com or download the Xfinity WiFi Hotspots app from the App Store or Google Play.

As school districts and colleges move classwork and instruction online, Comcast also is offering 60 days of complimentary service for individuals who sign up now for Internet Essentials, which is available to all qualified low-income households for $9.95/month. The Cable giant also will increase Internet speeds for the Internet Essentials service from 15/2 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps, which will be the speed of the service going forward.

“In this way, we will ensure that Internet Essentials customers will be able to use their Internet service for all their increased needs as a result of this health crisis,” Comcast officials said.

Memphis Light, Gas and Water has suspended disconnections and late fees until further notice.

Check with your Internet, phone or utility provider for additional details.

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