Covid, Race, and the Revolution

The pandemic’s toll on children, racial equity and the debate over reopening schools, and new attacks on Asian Americans, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 40. February 17, 2021

Covid Calls Us to Help Youth Thrive

By Starsky D. Wilson

Like many of my colleagues, I will soon reach the one-year anniversary of the last time I traveled for business. It was a trip to Atlanta for a board meeting of the Forum for Theological Exploration in early March. At the time, I led the Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis. After following Covid-19 news reports from the states of Washington and New York, I counseled a team member looking forward to an upcoming convening in Seattle that I didn’t think it was safe for him to go.

Within a week of arriving back home in Missouri, we shifted the foundation’s operations to a temporary telecommuting status. We temporarily shut down our Center for Child Well-Being. The most significant impact was to our investment portfolio. By mid-March, it was down 18 percent from December. But we thought the disruptions would be short-lived. We were still working toward opening the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools we sponsored for the summer. 

In those early days of the pandemic, we thought the danger was confined to certain cities or states. Some assumed only certain races or cultures would be impacted. We figured we would be back in our offices in a few weeks and the hardest thing to reclaim would be the lost investment returns.    

Our children are not immune

Perhaps our most dangerous early idea was that children were immune. It has since been made plain that young people are being impacted at every level: physically, economically, academically, socially, and psychologically. 

Recent research and the Children’s Defense Fund’s forthcoming report, State of America’s Children 2021, explore the enormous impact. 

  • As of January 21, 2021, 2,676,612  child Covid cases had been reported, representing 12.7 percent of all cases. More than 10,000 children and adolescents have been hospitalized since the start of the pandemic and at least 191 have died — disproportionately Black and Latinx young people. 
  • An October 2020 data analysis by the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University showed that an additional 8 million Americans — including 2.5 million children — had fallen into poverty since May 2020.
  • As of late November 2020, as many as one in six adults with children reported that their children were not getting enough to eat — more than five times the pre-pandemic rate.

Chief among the concerns, and more difficult to measure and monitor, are the impacts on behavioral health. A November 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paints a picture that calls us to action. By examining mental health emergency room visits, the CDC found increases of between 24 and 31 percent for people under the age of 18, compared to the same period in 2019.

Unfortunately, reimbursement policies, coverage inequities, and cultural stigma have contributed to emergency departments being the front line of support for children’s mental health. 

While more than 2 million children and youth have contracted the novel coronavirus in the United States, all 74 million are impacted by the sense of uncertainty and disruption it has caused. Even the improvements in the second school year of online learning have not resolved concerns about social isolation and the loss of important life milestones such as graduation ceremonies and the high school prom. This loss of certainty, consistent routine, and connection is leading to increased levels of depression and despair among our children and youth. 

Black youth are especially vulnerable. The pandemic swept into Black communities wrestling with a suicide crisis for children. In December 2019, the Congressional Black Caucus’s Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health released Ring the Alarm. The report found that Black youth under 13 are twice as likely to die by suicide than their White counterparts and the suicide death rate for Black youth is increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group.  

Supporting resilience

While the data invite us to action, our children’s resilience inspires us to envision a new way forward. 

Just before that last business trip in 2020, my 10-year-old son came down with a lingering illness. For three weeks he showed the signs of a horrible, protracted cold. Ultimately, our pediatrician diagnosed him with Influenza B. As our son learned more about the symptoms of Covid, though, he began to declare that he was “a survivor” (a claim he maintains to this day). We affirm the medical opinion of his doctor but take cues of psychological resilience from this child.

The resilience of young people even in the face of a global disaster points our attention to ways we can rebuild for a healthy future. For years, we have created programs to mitigate harm. Instead, we should imagine and build what is necessary for healing. The Covid crisis provides the opening to shift from helping youth survive to making sure they thrive. 

The Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson is the President and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund. The CDC provides online resources that adults can use to help young people cope and sustain social and emotional well-being. 

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

What will it take to get children back to school?

Forty-two percent of the nation’s K-12 students are learning exclusively online, 23 percent are combining remote and in-person learning, and 36 percent are going to school full time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines last week for reopening schools with mitigation measures such as mask wearing, physical distancing, hygiene, and proper ventilation, even if teachers are not vaccinated. The New York Times surveyed 175 pediatric experts and almost all agreed with the federal guidance.

But affluent, predominately White school districts are moving faster to reopen schools than districts serving less affluent communities of color — the places hardest hit by Covid-19, the Los Angeles Times reports. A national survey conducted last month found that 63 percent of White parents favored the full- or part-time return to in-person learning, compared with fewer than half of Black, Latinx, and Asian parents.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of The New Yorker examines issues of trust at the core of the fraught school debate. “The lack of trust is not just about the character of the powerful actors involved; it also has to do with what parents and teachers understand about the conditions of the school buildings, and whether schools are likely to carry out health and safety protocols successfully.” It’s no secret that schools in low-income Black and Brown communities struggle with the upkeep of old, decaying facilities. Last summer, in its first report in 24 years on the condition of the nation’s public schools, the US Government Accountability Office found that 41 percent of schools needed to fix or replace their heating and ventilation systems — crucial for Covid safety. The majority of schools do not have the funds to make the repairs they need.

The Federal Reserve Bank examines racial inequities in education, in its web conference series, “Racism and the Economy.” Closing education gaps requires thinking about children within the context of their families and communities, and not solely as students. Among proposed solutions: codify policies to increase families’ economic security; among adults in schools, create a culture that believes in and fosters student success; and make quality education a civil right guaranteed in state constitutions.

Meanwhile, in January, on the eve of Black History Month, Republican lawmakers in five states proposed bills that would cut funding to schools and colleges that teach lessons based on the award-winning 1619 Project about slavery in America, produced by the New York Times, The 19th reports

When Black Americans mobilized for jobs and economic justice

Proposals for a federal job guarantee and for guaranteed income are gaining ground amid the historic economic downturn and moment of racial reckoning. Fast Company looks at the last time these policy ideas had momentum: when Martin Luther King Jr. turned his focus to economic justice. The Civil Rights movement achieved much, but it did not improve the economic fortunes of the Black population. Months before he died, King announced the Poor People’s Campaign and called for an “economic bill of rights.” The campaign was to culminate in a march on Washington. Just weeks after King was assassinated, his widow, Coretta Scott King, led thousands of women in the first wave of demonstrations for economic justice that would last for months.

New wave of attacks on Asian Americans

A string of attacks on older Asian Americans, including at least three in the San Francisco Bay Area captured on video, are raising fresh concerns about anti-Asian bias related to the coronavirus pandemic, CNN reports. Hundreds of people have volunteered to accompany residents who feel unsafe walking alone in Oakland’s Chinatown, according to the Chicago Tribune. Stop AAPI Hate has documented more than 3,000 attacks on Asian Americans since the coronavirus emerged in China.

In his first week in office, President Joe Biden condemned the “inflammatory and xenophobic rhetoric” that has put Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals, communities, and businesses at risk, and ordered the federal government to work to prevent anti-Asian discrimination, bullying, harassment, and hate crimes.

The latest attacks coincided with Lunar New Year, traditionally a busy, festive time in Chinese communities. BBC News looks at the impact of xenophobia and Covid restrictions on small business owners.

Evictions rise — and activists fight back

Despite the CDC’s national moratorium, eviction filings are on the rise almost everywhere. Bloomberg CityLab reviewed a year’s worth of data across 27 US cities tracked by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, and explores a key question:  Why can’t the government stop evictions? 

In Kansas City, Missouri, activists are taking matters into their own hands. The state has some of the weakest renter protections in the country, so renters are organizing protests, educating communities about tenant rights, and fighting in court to ensure safe and fair housing for Black residents, ACLU Magazine writes. The fight is led by and centered on Black women, who are much more likely to have lost jobs during the pandemic and who may find landlords unwilling to negotiate on payment plans because of bias.

Meanwhile, Republican-controlled legislatures in Idaho and Michigan are trying to turn down federal emergency aid for renters, Bloomberg  CityLab reports. The consequences can be disastrous, because states have limited time to use the money or it goes back to the Treasury.

As the housing crisis grows, Graham Pruss, a scholar at the University of California, San Francisco Center for Vulnerable Populations, tells USA Today that more people will be pushed to live in their cars and RVs.

Homelessness and displacement add huge complications to the already-difficult task of getting the US population vaccinated against Covid.  The Los Angeles Times reports on the obstacles confronting doctors and nurses hoping to vaccinate the roughly 66,000 people living on the streets and in shelters and hotel rooms of LA.

Bringing community and culture to vaccine outreach

It was a major, yet overlooked, misstep in the early pandemic response: community health services were deemed nonessential and shut down, and workers with strong roots and relationships in neighborhoods were sidelined. “They became marginalized workers within marginalized communities,” Michele Cohen Marill writes in Kaiser Health News. Now the Biden administration is calling on these workers to serve as a bridge to communities ravaged by the virus and to residents wary about the vaccine. Marill looks at the investments and engagement strategies to leverage these trusted sources of care in the Covid vaccine campaign.

Tribal leaders and activists are building on love and respect for culture and community to vaccinate Indigenous people, NBC News reports. Though fears and suspicions about the government and the medical establishment run deep after centuries of oppression, exploitation, and abuse, 75 percent of Native Americans said in a survey late last year that they would be willing to get a Covid vaccine. Not because they now trust US officials, but because they put the "we" ahead of the "me."

Safety monitoring is key to easing concerns that vaccine development was rushed or politicized, but the government is not yet up to speed with a promised program capable of analyzing data from the massive inoculation effort and reliably tracking side effects and dangerous reactions, the New York Times reports. For at least the coming months, the government will continue to rely on a patchwork of small programs and spotty data.

Continuing to educate the public

Stay Covered Together, a national public education campaign created by the Harlem Children’s Zone, aims to drive awareness about the importance of wearing masks to stay safe from Covid and protect one another. The NAACP, StriveTogether, and PolicyLink, along with respected community organizations across the country, are partners in the effort to protect communities most impacted by the devastating effects of the virus — communities challenged by poverty and economic insecurity — by enlisting everyone to play a part. 

Please share with your networks and send your ideas and feedback. And follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. #COVIDandRace

We hope you find this series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.