Minorities, poor are squeezed out of COVID-19 response

By Ricardo Martin Oct 17, 2020

Several months ago, as president of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP, I sent a letter to Gov. Jim Justice, Senate President Carmichael, R-Jackson, and Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. To date no response has been received. After weeks with no response, I hand delivered the letter to the statehouse, confirmed that the letter went from the Office of Constituent Services to the Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel, Brian Abraham. Still no response to the letter has been received.

In a subsequent letter, dated July 10, 12 organizations co-signed and submitted a letter to Gov. Justice, Senate President Carmichael and Speaker Hanshaw, in support of the requests outlined in my letter. The second letter did get a reply. The Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs (HHOMA) responded on behalf of the governor’s office in a letter dated Aug. 7. Not only am I disappointed in not receiving a response to my letter, the letter of response from the HHOMA is beyond disappointing.

As an office that reports directly to the governor, with identified missions, goals and objectives for that office clearly defined, why is that office not a part of the governor’s State Coronavirus Task Force that three times a week conducts televised press briefings on the status of the state’s response to the pandemic?

It appears the African American Task Force mentioned in the response from the HHOMA was an afterthought and the alleged work of that group is not deemed worthy of inclusion as a part of reports given during the weekly coronavirus press briefings. How insulting and demeaning are the optics associated with that exclusion of a large segment of the state’s population, the minority and low-income communities. To me this reflects the indifference and lack of sensitivity shown by Gov. Justice and his administration toward the minority and low-income communities.

Consider my letter and the letter cosigned by the 12 organizations (WV Citizen Action Group; WV Citizens for Clean Elections; WV American Civil Liberties Union; Rise Up WV; National Association of Social Workers, WV; WV Council of Churches; Our Future WV; WV Rivers Coalition; Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition; West Virginians for Affordable Health Care; Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Free). Look closely at what is requested on behalf of minority and low-income communities. For these requests to not even merit a meeting and serious consideration about what could possibly be done to address the needs identified is like a punch in the gut.

Shame on Governor Justice and his administration. I am confident when the Governor lays down at night he and Mrs. Justice, and their family, don’t go to sleep like many minority and low-income West Virginians, concerned about how will they pay the mortage this month; what bills they will forego in order to buy my medication; will they have enough money to buy food for their family?; will they be able to pay utilities this month?; will their car be repossessed?; and other serious concerns that impact the family unit.

Can you imagine the level of stress and negative health impact created for minority and low-income persons over these concerns? I don’t believe the chief executive of our state of West Virginia feels the pain of the minority and low-income citizens. If he does, he should hold a press briefing and speak directly to the minority and low-income communities about specific plans, services and programs to address poverty, health and other concerns.

There are 480-plus census tracts across West Virginia. Over 280 of these census tracts have poverty levels at 20% or higher. There are approximately 380,000 West Virginia citizens who live in poverty. With the knowledge of this data, we are unable to get Gov. Justice and this administration to the table for a serious discussion about ideas to address poverty and health disparities, let alone a plan of action. If Gov. Justice can propose using CARES Act funds for a COVID-19 highway, I refuse to believe it is not within his authority to consider our requests and show enough respect to fully vette the possibilities of doing what is requested.

The HHOMA mentioned a $25,000 grant to the Marshall University Minority Health Institute and several Bridge Grants awarded in Kanawha, Berkeley and Jefferson Counties. While appreciated, it doesn’t begin to adequately address the problems of poverty and detriments to health for the minority and low-income population. Health outcomes for many of our state’s citizens is dismal. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a “Life Expectancy Study.” The study captured the top 50 cities/locations in the country with life expectancy below the national average. West Virginal had five locations on that list (Salem, Hinton, Logan, the West Side of Charleston and West Huntington).

In the latter part of November 2019, a small delegation from the State Conference of Branches NAACP requested and were given a meeting with Gov. Justice. One recommendation we made was funding for a “Summer Youth Work Experience and Academic Enrichment Program.” Gov. Justice and Bray Carey, his consultant, both expressed high interest in the proposal and committed to have members of our group come back within 10 days to discuss in greater detail how we envisioned the program working. We never received the invitation for a followup meeting.

Allow me to be clear: This is not a political ploy as we approach the general election. We need leadership from the executive branch of our state government to address poverty and the health disparities that exist. This is a matter of life and death that cannot be ignored. How does anyone in the role of the chief executive of a state, who cannot speak definitively to poverty and health disparities, deserve to be in their position?