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Mississippi Delta Communities Respond to COVID-19
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Pam Chatman has been helping out Delta residents during this pandemic
Courtesy of Pam Chatman

As COVID-19 continues to spread in Mississippi, community organizers and elected officials are making sure Delta residents have supplies and support. MPB's Alexandra Watts reports.

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Greenville Mayor Erick Simmons speaks to a crowd while standing on the steps of city hall.

Those attending the press conference are practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

“People are dying,” Simmons said in a speech. “African Americans are dying at a higher rate than any others in the United States and in Mississippi.”

Greenville is in Washington County, which has a population of 44,000. There are 65 confirmed COVID-19 cases and two deaths in the county to date.

Throughout Mississippi, the Coronavirus is infecting and killing black people at an alarming rate. According to the latest statistics from the health department more than half of confirmed cases and two-thirds of deaths are African American.

Those figures concern state representative Abe Hudson Jr. who represents Bolivar and Sunflower counties.

“That is very concerning to me because the Delta has a high population of black folks,” Hudson said. “Certainly, this virus has no race, but it is impacting black folks, African Americans in a very detrimental way.”

Hudson lives in Bolivar County, which is almost two-thirds African American. The county has 70 confirmed cases and 5 deaths from COVID-19 — making it one of the counties with the most cases.

Generational poverty and inequality, systemic racism, lack of healthcare, food insecurity and a high number of uninsured are some of the disparities in the Delta that contribute to the high numbers.

Back in Greenville, Larry Muhammad, a barber, listens to Mayor Simmons speak.

“It really saddens me because we’re in that number more than anyone else,” Muhammad said. “Definitely, I’m saddened by it. Everyone is going to know somebody who has been affected by it.”

“Because I’m a barber, I can’t go to work because I tend to touch people when I’m working. That’s my job — I have to touch people,” Muhammad said. I don’t want to give it to anyone and I don’t want to get it from anyone, so I stay home. So I’ve been at home for the past three weeks.”

He is doing his part to help his community fight the coronavirus pandemic. He’s been collecting and distributing bleach and other cleaning supplies to residents.

And he is not alone in his efforts.

Pam Chatman has been a community organizer in the Mississippi Delta long before COVID-19 advocating for jobs, transportation and more in the region.

Before COVID-19, Chatman had ordered a large supply of mens clothing to give away to those in the communities. Along with the shipment came thousands of masks in boxes -- masks she did not order. A few months later, as the Coronavirus came to Mississippi, Chatman was able to donate the masks and other medical supplies to a local hospital.

Some of the supplies Pam Chatman is providing. (Photos -- Courtesy of Pam Chatman)

In this current pandemic, more and more people have been contacting her for groceries and supplies.

“I have been able to give out at least 20,000-plus face-masks,” Chatman said. “We have given out several hundred bags of groceries. We have given out cleaning products such as bleach and Clorox wipes...hand sanitizers.”

Chatman said the situation is bringing people together, it’s also highlighting the inequalities in resources.

“It is a very heartbreaking situation,” Chatman said. “There are a lot of African Americans here in the Mississippi Delta that are suffering from COVID-19 and a lot of their family members are looking direction and looking for answers. It’s time for the black community to come together for real, for real.”

As the number of cases increase, the number of people have, too.

“When I think it’s going to get smaller, the donations keep coming in bigger than I could ever imagine,” Chatman said.

Chatman is collaborating with the Bolivar County Council on Aging, a transportation service.

The group's white vans can be seen in the area providing rides to work and medical appointments, and is one of the few public transportation services in the Delta.

Because of social distancing, access to those rides have decreased.

But LaShonda McKinney, executive director of the group, says the service is still helping those in need.

“I received a call from our local sheriff of Bolivar County,” McKinney said. “ It was mentioned that a senior was not able to get her medication because she did not have transportation, and because of the recommendations for them to stay inside. And from that conversation, we implemented our program for that."

This new way of doing business is keeping some residents employed at a time when many have lost their jobs. Shuttle drivers are now being paid to disinfect the shuttles that are still in-service.

“You know the job that we do, if we were not able to do this, a lot of people would not have access,” McKinney said.

Health centers in the Delta are ramping up testing efforts as Mississippi approaches its peak number of cases. State Representative Abe Hudson Jr., who represents Delta counties, says the work of elected officials, community organizers and residents are all are important.

“There have been some local heroes, and some folks who don't even live here who have been very helpful,” Hudson said. “Everyone at every stage of this has, I believe, done their part to make sure that those who are the oldest among us and the youngest among us — who are most vulnerable are taken care of.”

And as Mississippi goes through the pandemic, some are working to make sure nobody is left behind.