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The Help that Doesn't Come

Posted on Friday, Jul 03, 2020
Dr. Marc Boswell
Director for the Together For Hope Program
Lake Providence, Louisiana

It has often been said that Louisiana consists of two major parts: New Orleans and the rest of the state.
While residents outside of New Orleans take exception to that joke, the adage exemplifies the cultural
and political importance of New Orleans and the tendency of outsiders to primarily associate Louisiana
with what happens in this major urban area.

Along with most of the United States, Louisianans watched the spread of COVID-19 with a sense that it
would not spread here, to wherever here was other than Washington State and New York City. Louisiana
quickly became disabused of that notion as cases popped up in New Orleans and then began to rapidly
multiply there and in the nearby state capital of Baton Rouge.

From my position in the Louisiana Delta, or the rural, agricultural parishes in the lower Mississippi River
Valley, New Orleans feels like a world away. The fastest route to reach the Crescent City takes roughly
4.5 hours and requires travelers to pass in and out of Mississippi along the way. So, as we watched the
explosion of COVID-19 cases occur in New Orleans in early March, the spread of the disease still felt like
a distant possibility for many Delta residents. In fact, it wasn’t until mid to late March that our first case
arrived in Lake Providence, where I live and work, and our known case numbers remained under twenty
until the middle of May.

Louisiana’s governor, Jon Bel Edwards, responded quickly to the rise in numbers in New Orleans. Pastors
and community organizers throughout the state worked hard to raise awareness of the fact that New
Orleans had rapidly become a hotspot in cases per capita in the nation. Much sooner than many
governors in the South, the Edwards administration began requiring shelter-in-place practices.

In the small Delta town of Lake Providence, these requirements mostly resulted in the closure of public
schools, our one library, and in decisions to take extra precautions at our one nursing home and local
hospital. At our little local community college, however, employees were initially told that they would
continue with classes because they had good janitors who could keep things clean. I wish I was joking.

The Delta is a unique place in our country. Most of our parishes (or counties) are predominantly African
American in demographic background. East Carroll Parish, of which Lake Providence is the parish seat, is
roughly 77% Black and 23% white. Poverty rates are inordinately high, with 63% of our children living at
or below the poverty line and 45% or more of adults living at or below the poverty line.
Ironically, there is tremendous wealth accumulation in the Delta, which makes for some of the widest
gaps in generational wealth in the entire country. Black families, most of whom descend from enslaved
and sharecropping ancestors, typically have family wealth of less than $40K, while many white farming
families have accumulated millions of dollars of generational wealth.

Complicating our struggles with poverty is the geographical isolation of most Delta towns. The nearest
Target or Starbucks, for instance, are 1.5 hours away. Businesses choose not to locate in the Delta either
because of the lack of a customer base or because it has been racialized as “Black” and classed as
“poor.” Political leadership, when it advocates on behalf of the Delta, has typically done so mostly in the
interest of wealthy, white farming families.

I mention this background to illustrate the larger structural issues of dealing with COVID-19 in this
particular place. As COVID-19 cases began to subside and be managed better in New Orleans and Baton

Rouge, the governor began to phase the state back toward normalcy in the middle of May. At that time,
many health researchers predicted that a wave of cases (along with greater access to testing) was
coming to rural areas, and such was precisely the case in the rural space of the Delta. Just as the shelter-
in-place restrictions were being lifted across the state, cases began to explode in East Carroll Parish and
also in neighboring Madison Parish to our south.

East Carroll’s cases hovered around 15-20 throughout April and into early May. As restrictions were
eased, we watched as our numbers shot up to 30, then 60, and over Memorial Day Weekend, they
doubled to 120. Since late May, our numbers have reached over 400, landing us on the New York Times’
top ten list of hotspots per capita in America, along with Madison Parish.
In response, there has been no abundance of resources channeled into the area, which is a numbing
reality to which most residents are accustomed. Half of our families do not have reliable access to the
internet, making virtual learning nearly impossible. Multigenerational families of five to seven people
often share two-bedroom homes of less than 1,000 square feet, making social distancing difficult, not to
mention sheltering-in-place. If it has been uncomfortable and aggravating for wealthy and middle-class
folks to stay in place and educate our children and entertain ourselves, imagine the difficulty of doing so
on a median income of $19k per year and doing so in very close quarters.

In the face of such challenges, I’ve witnessed community members respond boldly and courageously.
Religious congregations, almost all of which are conservative evangelical, complied with the governor’s
orders and found creative, safe ways to worship. Teachers tried to find alternative ways to work with
their students and help them finish the semester. Most people adopted the practice of wearing face
masks, even though they were not required by local businesses until early June.

As is often the case in rural America, we watch the interest of the country be primarily oriented toward
major, urban areas, with considerably less attention given to the challenges and realities of rural space.
This dynamic feels multiplied in the Delta given our geographical isolation and our country’s
troublesome legacy of not being particularly concerned about the well-being of African Americans. With
the dismissal and politicization of the disease at the federal level, and with the state of Louisiana’s
primary focus upon urban centers in the southeastern part of the state, residents of the Delta are not
surprised by the fact that help very often just does not come to our communities. We do the best we
can with the little that we have, but that’s small comfort in face of our rapidly growing numbers.

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