Community leaders: Maine must fix COVID racial disparity
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine’s Black community accounts for more than a fifth of the state’s coronavirus cases despite making up less than 2% of the population, and community leaders said Thursday the state must do more to address that racial disparity.
Maine, which has the highest percentage of white residents of any state, has a fairly low total coronavirus caseload of 3,070. But of 2,710 coronavirus victims who have disclosed their race, more than 27% are Black, according to statistics from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Maine Black leaders, including a pair of state representatives and a group of local officials and nonprofit leaders, said Thursday that systemic racism is the reason for the disparity. They said Maine Gov. Janet Mills can start fixing the problem by using more of the state’s $1.25 billion in CARES Act money to bolster black communities.
Long-term solutions, however, will take addressing long-standing racial inequalities in health care, infrastructure and other critical services in the state, said Democratic state Rep. Craig Hickman.
“The lives of people of color have been devalued. It’s no surprise that a pandemic such as this would exacerbate inequality that has existed since time immemorial,” he said.
Black Americans have faced a heavy burden during the coronavirus pandemic in America. An Associated Press analysis of data from state and local health departments around the country found that more than a quarter of all COVID-related deaths nationwide have been Black victims. That was almost double the Black population percentage of the areas sampled.
No state has a wider gap between its percentage of Black residents and percentage of Black coronavirus infection victims than Maine. Mills, the state’s Democratic governor, said Thursday she would dedicate $50,000 to the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations. Mills created the commission to tackle racial disparities in the state.
Mills’s office also said Thursday the state is working to expand access to coronavirus testing and other support services for communities of color. The state’s CDC director, Nirav Shah, said “the disparity we have seen racially and ethnically among rates of COVID-19 is categorically unacceptable.”
State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross said the move to bolster the commission is good news, but it’s not the only tool the state needs.
“Systemic racism wasn’t invented last week. People are getting sick and dying every day because they are not getting what is needed every day,” she said.
Bright Lukusa, a Lewiston college student who works for Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, said she was twice exposed to coronavirus while working as a health care worker and both times had difficulty accessing testing and other services.
She said one reason Black Maine residents have suffered more coronavirus infections is because they make up so much of the state’s home health care workforce, and are more often exposed to the virus.
“You hear that Black people are being affected more than the other races of this state, that should be the first priority,” Lukusa said. “We are tired of being the statistics and we need a change.”