Editor’s note: COVID-19 has uniquely impacted communities of color and their lives and ministries. In this series, we will feature ELCA Racial Justice reflections from each of the ELCA Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministries associations, focusing on racism and racial disparities amid the coronavirus.

On Palm Sunday, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told the American people that “this [week] is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment,” as COVID-19 infections continued to rise. At the time, many leading public health officials had described that week as potentially the hardest and saddest yet of increased U.S. deaths related to the coronavirus.

This pandemic has affected the entire world in alarming ways. It has also continued to spike the globally uncured diseases of racism and xenophobia.

The University of California, Berkeley recently retracted a statement advising students that “xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings” is a normal or common reaction. This shows the high level of insensitivity and present-day normalization of racism even from a school whose demographics report that more than 30% of the student body is of Asian descent.

This institution’s culture and ethics in communication should be far ahead of the curve in understanding racism of any kind as an unacceptable reaction to this pandemic. But like many institutions, it continued to be complicit in the propagation of systematic and systemic racism. This must stop, especially when we are finding that people of color are being affected fatally by this pandemic at disproportional rates.

ProPublica reported that early data shows African Americans have contracted and died of coronavirus at higher rates. In Milwaukee—host of the African Descent Lutheran Association’s (ADLA) 2019 Biennial Assembly—African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 coronavirus cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a population that is only 26% Black (as of April 3, 2020). These disproportionate rates of infection and death are a direct result of economic, political and environmental factors that have been growing for decades.

These factors, along with so many other sociological trends, have put Black people at higher risk of chronic conditions that leave immune systems vulnerable and battling preexisting illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, HIV and asthma. COVID-19 has also uncovered major disparities in access to health care. With the rising death tolls, we need high-quality public health care that is guaranteed to all and not just as a private marketplace.

ADLA has ramped up advocacy efforts to pressure the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to release race data related to the coronavirus. The CDC typically tracks widespread demographic data with all virulent outbreaks but has provided little information about race during this pandemic. This data is important in addressing racism and other disparities to health care access.

We as a church can do so much more to reverse these trends and inequities.

If the deadliness of this pandemic continues, the United States will experience a devastating loss of Black lives. Now more than ever we must be reminded that Black Lives Matter.

We must also acknowledge that sheltering in place can be a privileged request, as many people don’t have the same levels of resources with which to do so. Imposing curfews, demanding lockdowns or expecting people to stay at home without canceling their rent and helping them secure adequate food or pay all other related bills are unjust requests. With the rise in unemployment, this pandemic has created a greater wealth divide in access to basic income and adequate housing for all.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed by Congress assisted some people in this season but won’t greatly protect the most vulnerable, who are at higher risks related to the pandemic.

Holy Week should have brought us all into a greater understanding of the realities of death and access to life in our nation and world. We, as people of faith, easily grasp the understanding that Jesus died for all our sins and brings us to eternal redemption—he did it so that we might have life and that life more abundantly (John 10:10). We are reminded that God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus so we wouldn’t perish but have access to eternal life. In the same way we celebrate access to a better life with Jesus, we must claim access to health care as a human right that provides a better life for all.

Many of the sociological trends (health, economics) affecting people of color globally and nationally can easily be seen among the participants, members and leaders of color in the ELCA. For far too long, we have watched our friends and colleagues (especially of African descent) die or grow gravely ill because of health conditions. The economic inequities among many of the ELCA’s congregations often reveal that the most impoverished communities have to do much more with fewer resources. Many rostered ministers of color are still struggling to pay health insurance premiums and deductibles out of meager church budgets and inconsistent paychecks.

We as a church can do so much more to reverse these trends and inequities. We need to continue to increase our support and advocacy for people of color, who are disproportionately affected by this pandemic and in critical need of help. Let’s take up this cross that we bear right now in 2020 and follow Jesus, who has led us to a better life for all.

Lamont Anthony Wells
Lamont Anthony Wells is program director for LuMin/Campus Ministry in the ELCA and president of the African Descent Lutheran Association.

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