Drawing attention to marginalized communities during the pandemic

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The University of Connecticut Public Interest Research Group (UConnPIRG) held an event titled “Poverty in the Pandemic Panel” to discuss the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on the lives of marginalized populations.  Photo courtesy of the UConn PIRG Instagram page.

The University of Connecticut Public Interest Research Group (UConnPIRG) held an event titled “Poverty in the Pandemic Panel” to discuss the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on the lives of marginalized populations.  

The first panelist was Robin Lamott Sparks, executive director of End Hunger CT, whose discussion centered mainly on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The discussion began by comparing the statistics before and after the pandemic began. The poverty rate in Connecticut before the pandemic was approximately 10% and the extreme poverty rate was 6%.  

Sparks said COVID-19 has severely impacted the food banks and pantries in Connecticut, particularly those that aren’t run by federal agencies like the Emergency Food Assistance Program. Donations from the community had largely propelled food pantries, but since the pandemic began, organizations have had to buy 30 to 60% of their food. Sparks also said the emergency food supply had been very disorganized since the beginning of the pandemic.  

“Sparks said COVID-19 has severely impacted the food banks and pantries in Connecticut, particularly those that aren’t run by federal agencies like the Emergency Food Assistance Program.”

End Hunger CT provides a bilingual call center that is open on evenings and weekends to support communities in need, according to Sparks. They also have a portal in partnership with the state to help applicants upload their information, but ultimately, their organization has no role in the acceptance or denial of the application.  

According to the article, End Hunger CT was working with legislators to promote a bill that would add programs to include job training to the list of jobs that would allow students to qualify for SNAP. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the bill’s progress stagnated. Photo courtesy of the End Hunger CT website.

Sparks also touched on the effect poverty has had on college students during the pandemic.  

“You have to work 20 hours a week in order to get SNAP unless you’re on work-study,” Sparks explained. “Work-study counts whether you get the work-study or not.” 

She said End Hunger CT was working with legislators to promote a bill that would add programs to include job training to the list of jobs that would allow students to qualify for SNAP. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the bill’s progress stagnated.  

Rebecca Tripp, the organizer of the event, said, “I would deem poverty a public health crisis.” 

The next panelist was Mason Holland, the president of the UConn chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the UConn Collaborative Organizing (UCCO) outreach chair and the community service chair for Brothers Reaching Our Society (BROS). Holland spoke about how COVID-19 has a disproportionate effect on people of color, particularly Black people.  

“It’s an important thing to understand that when we talk about racism a lot of people don’t understand the things that racism created, or racism and gender, still persist and exist today in our society,” Holland said of the institutionalized racism in the healthcare system.  

“It’s an important thing to understand that when we talk about racism a lot of people don’t understand the things that racism created, or racism and gender, still persist and exist today in our society.”

Mason Holland, President of UConn chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Underrepresentation and constant underestimation of pain, especially in Black women, are widespread problems in the medical field and put Black people at a disadvantage before the pandemic even started, according to Holland. Holland said these barriers make it extremely difficult for people of color to receive adequate healthcare.  

During the pandemic, the struggles Black people have had receiving healthcare has only increased. The increased risk of infection due to pre-existing conditions was especially high in the Black community. For example, Black children are five times more likely to be hospitalized due to complications from asthma.  

“There were multiple news outlets and papers and magazines and journals reporting that Black people were suffering disproportionately from COVID-19 and while there were talks about pre-existing conditions and locations, we didn’t actually recognize how racism was instrumental in causing these effects, that really affect Black people,” said Holland.  

“There were multiple news outlets and papers and magazines and journals reporting that Black people were suffering disproportionately from COVID-19 and while there were talks about pre-existing conditions and locations, we didn’t actually recognize how racism was instrumental in causing these effects, that really affect Black people.”

Mason Holland, President of UConn chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 11.4% of Black people are uninsured. Approximately 13% of the country is Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

Holland also noted that Black people comprise much of the frontline workers in the pandemic, like nurses and doctors, but many also live in multigenerational households, making it very difficult to socially distance. Holland urged the audience to donate anything they can to people of color and marginalized communities. He also said that although donating to organizations is helpful, knowledge and money are important factors to consider when helping these communities. [Text Wrapping Break] 

african american woman in medical mask on gray background
According to speaker Mason Holland, President of NAACP, Black people comprise much of the frontline workers in the pandemic, like nurses and doctors, but many also live in multigenerational households, making it very difficult to socially distance..Photo by RF. studio on Pexels.com

The next panelist was Sage Phillips, the student coordinator for the Native American Cultural Program (NACP) and the founding president of the Native American and Indigenous Students’ Association. Phillips’s talking points focused on the detrimental effects COVID-19 has had on Indigenous people throughout the country and governmental response.  

Phillips said the rates of poverty have skyrocketed during the pandemic and the Indigenous community has been the hardest-hit ethnic group in the pandemic. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of Native American people being hospitalized has been 5.3 times higher than their White counterparts. The case rate was 2.8 times higher and the death rate was 1.4 times higher than White people.  

“In mid-May, the Navajo nation surpassed New York City in the largest per capita rate for COVID-19 infection across the U.S.,” Phillips said. For reference, the Navajo nation reported a population of 173,667 in the 2010 U.S. Census and the population of New York City is approximately 8.4 million.  

“In mid-May, the Navajo nation surpassed New York City in the largest per capita rate for COVID-19 infection across the U.S.”

Sage Phillips, Student coordinator for the Native American Cultural Program (NACP)/ Founding President of the Native American and Indigenous Students’ Association

Phillips explained that in her family’s tribe, the Penobscot Nation in Maine, the clinic is on the reservation and the elderly have been hesitant to go to the clinic due to outsiders bringing in COVID-19 and other diseases. She said the clinics are already underfunded and the pandemic has only increased the financial burden on community leaders.  

Phillips also spoke on the lack of federal response to the crisis. She mentioned that monetary support was given to the Navajo Nation, but there were multiple restrictions and a deadline to spend the money attached to it, despite there being no definitive end in sight for the pandemic.  

“At one point, a Native health organization in Seattle asked for not only monetary support from the federal government, but just resources, masks, tests and they received body bags instead a few weeks after that request,” said Phillips.  

“At one point, a Native health organization in Seattle asked for not only monetary support from the federal government, but just resources, masks, tests and they received body bags instead a few weeks after that request.”

Sage Phillips, Student coordinator for the Native American Cultural Program (NACP)/ Founding President of the Native American and Indigenous Students’ Association

This echoed the nation’s history with Indigenous people and widespread illnesses, the smallpox being the biggest example, according to Phillips. However, the Irish community donated about $1 million to the Navajo and Hopi nations. The Choctaw Nation gave monetary support to the Irish during the potato famine in the mid-19th century, which spurred their decision to provide monetary support during the pandemic.  

Phillips said students can support Indigenous people by donating clean water, food and other resources to help elders quarantine as long as possible. She also said that Ethel Branch, the former attorney general of the Navajo Nation, has a Go Fund Me that provides funds to families in need.  

The last speakers were Leah LePage and Julia Ward, the campaign coordinators of UConnPIRG’s Public Health Campaign. They focused on Connecticut’s remediation efforts and guidelines.  

person washing his hand
Leah Lepage, the campaign coordinators of UConnPIRG’s Public Health Campaign, informed the audience at the event of ways to stay safe during the holidays. She advised adhering to the Department of Public Health and Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which include maintaining at least a 6 feet distance from others and washing hands frequently. Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Shelters began to move residents into hotels to encourage social distancing. In Hartford, people were separated by 6 to 8 feet within the shelters, according to Ward. However, she noted the state still has not extended support to those who live out of hotels or motels as they are not considered legally homeless. Connecticut also has not extended the moratorium on evictions.  

LePage continued the conversation by informing the audience of ways to stay safe during the holidays. She advised adhering to guidelines set by the Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). LePage also mentioned the advisory panel that was assembled to deal with vaccine creation and distribution.  

The event concluded with the message that college students should be especially cautious and should get the vaccine when available because of college students’ contribution to community spread.  

UConnPIRG is holding events for Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week until Thursday.  

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