Leaders in Maine's minority communities are calling on Gov. Janet Mills and her administration to do more to protect people of color during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the state Center For Disease Control, Black and African American people make up only 1.6 percent of Maine's total population, but they account for a quarter of COVID-19 cases in the state.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed Maine's racial disparities tangibly. You can feel it. You can touch it. You can see it.”
Fatuma Hussein, who is originally from Somalia, is the executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine.
Hussein says that since March 12 various groups have approached the state on numerous occasions.
“Hundreds of meetings, thousands of hours of time, collectively, asking and pleading for help, but our needs and voices remain unheard.”
Hussein was one of several speakers at Thursday’s virtual press conference who called on the state to provide more money and other types of support to deal with immediate needs. Specifically, she wants to see the allocation of CARES Act funds, a program passed by Congress to protect the American people from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. She says she also wants to set up a meeting with Mills to have her hear what these communities have to say.
“You don't walk in my life. You're not in my shoes,” Hussein says. “When I come to you and ask you for help, you must listen to me, and you must take my word. You must make me a person who is empowered to take control of my destiny.”
Some speakers at the press conference noted that Black, African American, Latinx and Tribal Mainers may face heightened COVID-19 exposure because of their living and working situations.
“A typical living arrangement is four families of four living in a three bedroom apartment with the living room turned into an extra bedroom. And these are in eight unit buildings,” says Crystal Cron, of Presente! Maine.
Cron says members of Latinx communities in southern Maine have been devastated by COVID-19.
“There's no way to quarantine or isolate. High-touch points are every surface in the building. If 128 people live in an eight unit building, many of whom do not ever have access to health care and have unmanaged chronic conditions, and who also work in the same place and come into contact with nearly everyone else in the community who lives in the same type of living situation, does this not constitute a high risk environment?”
Cron says most of these individuals work long hours in close quarters in the lobster processing industry, and she says testing has not been widely available.
“We call upon you, Janet Trafton Mills, Governor of the state of Maine, to value Black lives, to value brown lives and Tribal lives and immigrant lives, and declare racism a public health emergency throughout the great state,” says Democratic Representative Craig Hickman of Winthrop, Maine's longest serving Black legislator.
“We drive the busses. We mop the hospital floors. we empty the bed pans. We take out the public's trash. We build houses and fix the roads. We grow and prepare and process and deliver our community's food, and we help heal our bodies and our spirits. We are essential, but we are not expendable. Our lives matter.”
In an emailed response, the Maine Department of Health and Human services says that the disparities in Maine’s health care system are unacceptable, and that the Department is committed to making progress on these issues and continuing a constructive dialogue. It also says it met regularly with stakeholders to address racial and ethnic disparities, and has expanded those meetings to include community leaders and advocates for racial and ethnic groups including people of color, New Mainers and Tribal leaders, and says it has more work to do.
Originally published 6:22 p.m. June 25, 2020