In just over three months, the COVID-19 pandemic has cost the lives of more than 113,000 Americans and the jobs of tens of millions more. It has also closed or derailed public schools, disrupted the work of social service providers, and curtailed the service and hours of operation of public transportation.
In urban areas like Baltimore, the impact has been magnified, according to a Pew Research Center study released May 26. That study says the areas hardest hit by COVID-19 deaths generally have higher shares of residents living in urban or densely populated suburban areas, and those residents are much more likely to be non-white. The same inequities can be seen in employment, distance learning resources, access to health care, and much more.
"This suggests that communities with more white residents have far greater access to testing, treatment, remote work, private vehicles, and single-family homes than communities of color and that coronavirus is not the 'great equalizer' that many pundits purported it to be," says Connor Maxwell, senior policy analyst for race and ethnicity policy at the Center for American Progress.
So, what can and is being done right here in West Baltimore? And what else can we all do — together — to protect the lives and well-being of our greater community? The two panelists on the June 11 edition of Virtual Face to Face with Dr. Bruce Jarrell have devoted their lives to that mission.
Bronwyn Mayden, MSW, is associate dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and executive director of the Promise Heights initiative. Promise Heights works with schools, community-based organizations, faith-based institutions, and others to improve educational outcomes for youth and ensure that families are healthy and successful in the Upton/Druid Heights communities. Mayden was joined by Alvin Hathaway Sr., DMin, PhD, senior pastor of Union Baptist Church in Druid Hill, a powerful voice for change and empowerment in Baltimore, and longtime University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) partner.
“Reverend Hathaway, I know you're close to the people in your community,” began UMB Interim President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, “but what are you hearing about this epidemic? And what can you tell us about how people are feeling?”
“I have basically three strings of conversations,” answered Hathaway. “There are senior members of the community that are basically terrified. They're in their homes, they are watching the news. They are afraid to interact, and they find themselves really isolated.” A second group, he explained, finds COVID-19 to be an impediment, negatively impacting work and income.
“And then there's a third group, an amazing group,” Hathaway continued. “Nobody that they know in their immediate circles have gotten it. They move about and they think it's something that's been manufactured and it's not real.” The key for his parishioners, he said, is to make certain that the community gets real-time information from subject matter experts, takes appropriate precautions, and advocates for community support.
“So, we have distributed masks. We have advocated for increased testing in West Baltimore. We have also advocated for people being certain about social distancing so that people do stay away from one another.”
Although closures and restrictions have been lifting gradually across the state, the Promise Heights initiative, which focuses on families and kids, is looking at an uncertain future.
“You're really in close contact with the kids in the school level and what they've gone through this spring and what's happening with them this summer,” Jarrell said, turning to Mayden. “What do you think's gonna happen in the fall?”
“Our kids have not been connecting, in terms of school,” Mayden lamented. “There has been an effort by Baltimore City Public Schools to give out Chromebooks, first to graduating seniors so they could finish up the year strong. And so, in a number of our schools, students and families got Chromebooks, but even after they got the Chromebooks they didn’t know how to operate them,” she said.
Mayden estimates that more than 25 percent of students in the last 12 weeks of isolation have not been able to go online to access information from the schools. “Schools have not heard from these kids,” she said.
“We're feeling good that the restrictions are being eased, in that we have a summer program and our Headstart program, of which the Promise Heights effort is a big supporter of,” Hathaway added. “We just have to have, I think they said 15 children to a classroom. That program usually takes in about 55 children. So, we have enough space in our ... 30,000-square-foot building.”
After discussing other community service issues, such as virtual training and workgroups, mental health challenges, and concerns of trust in the health care system, Jarrell turned the conversation to the most heated issue facing the country, racial injustice and the renewed struggle sparked by the death of George Floyd.
“What are you feeling? What’s going on in the community?” Jarrell asked. “I need advice. I’m obviously white. I don’t know all of the issues around this. I’m learning them and I want UMB to be at the forefront of this. So how do we get to that position? Even though we’ve made some progress, you and I know we’ve got miles and miles to go.”
“The tragedy of seeing in effect the actual asphyxiation, the actual lynching brought back … it just took the scab off the wound in the African American community, How we are so vulnerable to people with authority and power,” Hathaway explained. “In terms of institutions like the University of Maryland, Baltimore, it becomes important that one, I think you evaluate your systems to make sure that your systems are equitable and diverse. The second thing that I think is important is that your intellectual capital should be used to help us in the community to conduct that same type of evaluation.”
“I think that there are a lot of roles that we can play in terms of helping our community move forward from an issue like George Floyd,” Mayden added. “We also, working with our students to make sure when they come in, that we ground them, that we give them not just the opportunities — they’re going to be the ones who work with people who look like me and Reverend Al — so that they know how to talk and work with us in such a way that’s culturally appropriate. But we also need to ground them in the history of Baltimore,” she said.
Watch the entire episode of Virtual Face to Face with Dr. Bruce Jarrell by clicking the link at the top of the page.