When We Awaken

Krystle DuPree

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen magnificent displays of human kindness and unity. Communities are rebirthing age-old traditions and practices of caring for one another in a time of crisis. Through mutual-aid groups and organizations, members provide (or exchange) resources⁠—from long-term housing or shelter to food and childcare. Modernizing the steps of our social justice ancestors with the use of social media and crowdfunding, organizers and other community leaders here in Michigan have developed neighborhood and county-specific programs to help fill in the gaps exacerbated by seemingly misbegotten social policy reform and the lack of federal guidance. Across the country people join resources to imaginatively ease the burdens that have been exaggerated by the lack of practical and empathic social policy—one which would invest in, expand, and strengthen the federal safety net.

Yet are we simply placing band-aids on wounds that need major surgery? 

With the fatality rate from COVID-19 rising -and the United States leading in the numbers of diagnosed cases, the community has innovatively and diligently reacted to a nightmare. Yet, one day we will soon wake up. While our president lashes out at the media with accusations of sensationalism, many communities strategically attempt to address the substantial economic burden of being quarantined. Before COVID-19, 41% of the population already lived at or below the federal poverty line in the state of Michigan. Since the COVID-19 crisis, 3.3 million people nationwide have filed for unemployment, and unemployment claims in Michigan have seen a 550% increase in comparison to this time last year. We are facing both health and economic challenges that many of us have only read in history books: most recently, in 1968, the H3N2 flu virus killed one million people globally and about 100,000 in the US. In the United States, the worst of the three global pandemics to date is the Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people globally and over 700,000 in the United States.

The economic and health impact of the 1968 pandemic differed just as much as the population. Consider that in 1967-68 nearly 8.1 million people lived in poverty. According to the Economic Policy Institute, after “falling sharply between 1959 and 1968, the white poverty rate has continued to fall modestly. Today, the Black poverty rate remains more than twice as high as the white poverty rate.” Probably what is most tragic, children today face the highest rates of poverty of any age group: in 2017, Michigan ranked 33rd in the nation, with 19.3% of children in the state living below the poverty line. 

With this context and history we can attribute the vast and rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout densely populated areas in Wayne, Washtenaw, and Ingham counties to economic and racial oppression. COVID-19 is salt on a festering wound that has gone untreated for decades. It takes radical policy reform for the damage to begin to heal.

What happens to the recognition of fundamental human rights and dignity? 

On December 10, 1948, The Universal declaration of human rights proclaimed. “Article 25. (1) of this declaration states. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”  

In article after article, the media reports that the most detrimental effects of COVID-19 are experienced by those with pre-existing conditions. If this is true, can poverty be considered a pre-existing condition for a community? The overall poverty rate in Ypsilanti is 30.9%, meaning one out of every 3 residents of Ypsilanti lives in poverty. 40.3% of Black residents of Ypsilanti, Michigan, live below the poverty line while only 27.3% of the total population of Ypsilanti identify as Black. Also, the poverty rate of Black residents in Ypsilanti, Michigan, is dramatically higher than the state average reported in 2019 of 27.4%.According to news sources citing data from the county health department, Black people made up nearly half of the COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County during the height of the crisis, and the majority of cases overall were from 48197 and 48198 zip codes.  Given the systemic racial disparities that existed before the pandemic, community members and legislators have to consider how the current crisis will exacerbate these disparities.

Ask your legislators: how do they plan to get (and keep) the water running, keep our neighbors housed, strengthen our healthcare system, and make sure people are employed after this crisis comes to an end? How will those who “represent us” push our state and the federal government to support and uplift homeschool co-ops and childcare collectives under their plans for universal childcare and preschool? What will happen to the incomes of single parents who work from home for part of the week? Considering that in many places, childcare cost is comparable to rent—how will they strengthen and expand the federal safety net, and will they use a critical race lens and queer Black feminist lens, so that they may adequately read between the lines? How will our leaders prepare us for the future? Where will our aspirations for community driven and developed support go? Will we uphold the value of human rights, of humanity itself? Will our dream be deferred, and “Dry up like a raisin in the Sun”? When we awaken and rub the sleep from our eyes, and adjust our sights, what sort of reality will we see?