The NAACP and its Mississippi State Conference are pushing for a federal investigation into why poor Black people were shut out of receiving COVID-19 funding.
If there was one state that could benefit from $15.7 billion in COVID aid, it was Mississippi, given it is the poorest state in the US. After struggling to access supplies and proper healthcare, its minority residents outpaced the rest of the country in COVID infections and deaths.
Represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center an administrative complaint, they claim the misappropriation of state funds violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. SPLC Attorney Keisha Stokes-Hough said the state has one of the most vulnerable healthcare systems in the country, particularly for Black people. Black communities only had one physician for every 2,000 people and the Delta variant surge only escalated the need for help.
“What you see across the state, particularly in rural areas where Black people live is that hospitals are closing, clinics are closing. The state has also failed to expand Medicaid, which has worsened all of these problems,” said Stokes-Hough. “In Jackson, for instance, you had COVID patients who were being treated in an open air parking garage, adjacent to the hospital because the hospital was just too full.”
When community groups and faith leaders needed supplies to share with the community, the state failed to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) and invested in testing and vaccination sites that were inaccessible to poor Black people without transportation. If billions of dollars in financial assistance was being used, it wouldn’t go unnoticed.
The SPLC and NAACP reached out to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and Mississippi Department of Health to figure out where the money was going.
More from the complaint:
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Mississippi and other public and private organizations in the state received $15.7 billion in pandemic financial assistance. Despite receiving billions of dollars, the state failed to develop a plan to distribute vaccines equitably, which has resulted in disproportionate rates of sickness, hospitalization and death, according to the complaint filed with the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. It notes that the state has seen “devastating impacts by race, ethnicity, and national origin, especially in low-income communities.”
The state largely ignored requests by the NAACP throughout the pandemic that it strengthen its civil rights and health equity efforts. By September 2021, Mississippi had the highest death rate from COVID-19 in the country and one of the highest in the world.
So far, the NAACP and SPLC found millions meant for the Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program was given to a law firm in Jackson who then evaluated the tenants’ qualifications for assistance, per The Washington Post. In another instance, money for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families was siphoned away to former NFL player Brett Farve for speech appearances he never showed up to, per NPR. Farve ended up repaying the state as a result and apparently didn’t know he was receiving welfare funds.
Ultimately, this boils down to not establishing an equitable plan of distribution.
“When government agencies receive federal funding for health purposes and emergency purposes, they’re required to be thoughtful in developing equity plans to make sure that all communities are served by the federal dollars. And that equity plan should consider not only race and ethnicity, but factors like rural population versus urban populations,” said Stokes-Hough.
FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services are investigating the distribution of the funds in response to the complaint. Moving forward, Stokes-Hough said she hopes to work with legislators to make sure money coming in the state is going to the people who need it. The Mississippi Department of Health reported of the 250,599 confirmed COVID cases in the Black community, 4,565 of them died as of May 9, 2022.
“There’s been loss of life that can’t be recovered. So even as the community groups have done what they could, it doesn’t change what could have been done in the early days to invest in medical infrastructure. When you think about how things could have been different, if the state had utilized the funding that they received in a deliberate and equitable way, it’s really disheartening,” said Stokes-Hough.