African American essential workers should not die on the front lines
By Rosemary Eng
Like gingerly placing down a strategic chess piece, Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin declared mandatory use of face masks would start May1.
The 39-year-old African American Democrat, has been dancing a cautious waltz with 75-year-old, white, Republican governor, Kay Ivey, since mid-March when the country was thrown into confusion at how the novel coronavirus was ripping through the nation and wondering what should be done about it.
When national news outlets like Bloomberg and CNN honed in on the mayor’s recent order, Woodfin’s social media sites went wild. Required face covering is not that remarkable. It was the timing of the decree, which came when Gov. Ivey decided to relax sheltering directives and open up the Alabama economy.
It was health crisis vs. economic crisis in a nutshell.
With Birmingham being 74 per cent African American, it brought to a head President Trump’s economy-first supporters vs. low-income, front-line workers afraid of getting sick and dying. More than 500 people have died from Covid-19 in Alabama, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
In Alabama, as elsewhere in the country, opening up the economy increasingly is understood to mean that more workers would be thrown into unsafe jobs whether it be in meat packing plants, making deliveries, being store cashiers, harvesting crops, working on transit, likely with little or no health insurance.
Woodfin and Council came out hitting hard against the virus
From the beginning Woodfin attacked the virus threat aggressively. Civic leaders in Birmingham formed a unified fight-the-virus front March 24. Woodfin announced city council was ready to issue an ordinance requiring sheltering in place. Local health officers and politicians stepped up one by one in support.
At that time Ivey countered that the state would not call for shelter in place. She famously said, “Y’all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York State, we are not California. Right now is not the time to order people to shelter in place.” And added, “I agree with President Trump, who thinks that a healthy and vital economy is just as essential to our quality of life.”
As Covid-19 cases increased in Alabama Ivey eventually adopted a stay-at-home policy in early April.
On May 11 she moved to a less strict “safer-at-home” policy allowing retail stores to open, provided they limit customers to 50% capacity, maintain social distancing between patrons and follow proper sanitary procedures.
Restaurants, bars, breweries, athletic facilities and close-contact service providers, such as barbershops, hair salons, nail salons and tattoo services, were able to open under expanded safer-at-home guidelines.
That did it for Woodfin. He went before local media saying that as more retail businesses open there would be less social distancing, which prompted him to enact the face coverings directive as a way to protect people from any new surge of virus spread through social contact.
While he and the governor maintained parallel but different universes, this was one of the first times they have so openly clashed.
When opening up the State created a dilemma, Woodfin turned to science
Woodfin doesn’t dismiss the economic crisis. “My approach has been to equally address the public health crisis and the economic crisis created from this pandemic.
“It has hurt me deeply to speak with residents who are now unemployed, who have lost their health insurance and who have shuttered their businesses. We are in a situation shared by every city in America.
That’s why as a city, we acted quickly to help stabilize small businesses through emergency loan funds. My team is working around the clock to figure out how we can best support businesses as they look to reopen.”
He’s said unemployed workers in Birmingham can apply for jobs through the Birmingham Strong Service Corps which matches workers with new jobs created to respond to the pandemic.
However, “when it comes to reopening Alabama, we must choose data over dates,” Woodfin emphasized. “Here’s the reality: the cases of covid-19 continue to rise in our state.”
In the tussle between health crisis vs. economic crisis Woodfin is in a different milieu from other small cities, said Dr. Peter Jones, assistant professor in the department of political science and public administration at University of Alabama Birmingham.
He said the city (population roughly 210,000 and hub of the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Area, population of 1.1 million) is home to University of Alabama Hospital, the third largest public hospital in the U.S., and its prestigious medical school. That expertise has always been part of Woodfin’s game plan.
“I’m not an epidemiologist, not a health expert, I don’t have a medical background, I don’t know how viruses work. I need to shut up and listen to the experts tell us where we are with the flattening of the curve and make sure that any decisions we make for the economic crisis doesn’t cause a second wave of the health crisis. I think it’s going to be really important for elected officials to shut up,” he said.
Woodfin’s science card is University of Alabama Hospital and School of Medicine
As we watched President Trump jostling for the microphone with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force, Woodfin has been in quiet, constant consultation with Dr. Selwyn M. Vickers, professor, senior vice president of medicine at University of Alabama at Birmingham, and dean of the UAB School of Medicine.
Vickers is in “regular dialogue” with Woodfin on “how to move forward.”
Most of Alabama’s Covid-19 patients are treated at UAB Hospital.
Vickers reported to UAB administrators that the hospital has been developing “the best treatment protocols when there were no defined protocols” for treating Covid -19. “We’ve created ones that are standards that are used hopefully not only across our state but are models for the country.”
UAB Medical has a raft of experts who have been dealing with the virus.
It’s like Woodfin having his own Fauci team. Vickers gave a nod to Department of Pathology Chair George Netto, M.D., and his group for developing Covid-19 testing with a turnaround time of less than 24 hours. Neighboring states, said Vickers, sometimes wait five to seven days for testing results.
Vickers said UAB Medicine’s Jeanne Marrazzo MD, director of the division of infectious diseases, has been providing expert advice nationally.
On C-Span Washington she spoke to the public and, in a separate session, to doctors describing how research on the virus has shown 40 per cent rate of transmission before any symptoms are evident.
These pre-symptomatic people are transmitting the virus well before they would register a fever through temperature testing, she said.
Keep that in mind while watching on the news people enthusiastically welcoming customers into re-opened shops, confident because thy are screening with thermometers.
Woodfin has said because of a lack of testing and tracing data he does not feel confident about economic opening up. He told CNN May 7, “I think putting Alabamians in harm’s way as relates to choosing the economic crisis over the health crisis is dangerous.”
One in five people in Birmingham are over 60 and 74 per cent of the city’s population is African American, placing them at high risk, Woodfin has said.
After Ivey’s opening, Birmingham council required face coverings in public to help compensate for the lack of distancing that would be created by social crowding in retail businesses. Woodfin said because the virus can be airborne, at least covering the nose and mouth could help people be safer in public places.
Compared to places like Michigan, Alabama has had relatively small-scale demonstrations pushing for opening up business. At the state capitol of Montgomery a small group of seemingly all-white citizens held up “fire Fauci” signs and rode around with Trump banners.
Birmingham took to the media differently.
Leading an alliance of 13 other university deans, Dr. Vickers in an opinion piece to USA Today wrote, “The covid-19 pandemic has highlighted just how profoundly health care access and health outcomes are linked with an individual’s employment and income status in the United States.
When economic crisis trumps health crisis, more African Americans die
Many African Americans and other minorities can’t stay home because they work in sectors like health care, government, transportation and food supply that are now deemed essential. In cities, minority populations are still riding public transportation in large numbers to go to work, yet another unavoidable exposure risk.
“The worse cases are in Louisiana, where 33 per cent of the population are African Americans but represent 70 per cent of coronavirus deaths. More than 40 per cent of coronavirus deaths in Michigan and Illinois are represented by African Americans,” Vickers and his group stated.
In neighboring Georgia, the African American mayors of Savannah and Atlanta are “following the science,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson. He said on the popular African American talk show Roland Martin Unfiltered that he was “dumbfounded” when he heard white Republican Gov. Brian Kemp announcing in April the opening up of business.
In neighboring Mississippi mayors had similar issues with its white Republican governor, Tate Reeves.
Woodfin’s face covering directive was “a bold stand,” commented Prof. Kathryn Morgan, professor and director of African American Studies Program at University of Alabama.
She has noticed little push back.
“There’s a different mindset in Birmingham because it is home to University of Alabama and so many people are from out of state and out of country,” having a broader perspective.
For Woodfin, “‘Putting People First’ isn’t just a slogan. It is the strategy for how we govern.”
He said, “I will do everything in my power to protect the residents of city of Birmingham.”