CrescentCare’s Ranie Thompson on COVID and New Orleans featured on Medium
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you know there’s a spirit here. It’s something in the air. We’re a city built for people to escape their ordinary lives. To feel, even just for a weekend, like something extraordinary can happen.
We’ve always loved to be that place for people all over the country and world. But once again, a disaster has reminded us of one truth: When the tourists leave and the restaurants close, who takes care of the people left behind?
The coronavirus pandemic left New Orleans silent. Although we are now on the long road to recovery, at one point New Orleans suffered a per capita death rate that topped the nation due to coronavirus. In a state that is 32 percent African American, 70 percent of the COVID-related deaths are from the black community. The deep roots of racial and economic injustice that impacts people’s health and well-being are once again being exposed, just as they were when the levees broke.
I’m a native Louisianian. I’ve lived and worked throughout Southeast Louisiana, and know that disasters — both natural and economic — create the most challenging legal and medical problems for our region’s most vulnerable. As the Legal Services Director of CrescentCare, I run a medical-legal partnership that helps people living with HIV/AIDS and other vulnerable populations with civil legal problems that could undermine their health, like housing safety and stability, income security, protection of employee rights, and access to health care. Over the course of my career, I’ve dealt with the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill, and they overwhelmingly affect the poorest and most disadvantaged among us.
While I’ve worked through more disasters than I’d like to count, there are some lessons learned that I believe can and should be applied to our response to coronavirus and ensure that response doesn’t perpetuate the same injustices that worsened this crisis in the first place.
First, we need to understand that longstanding inequalities provide the perfect storm for why COVID-19 and its subsequent effects have hit our city — especially African Americans living here — with brute force. Our economy is based on tourism and hospitality, and disasters grind it to a halt. The black community in New Orleans is disproportionately represented in this most precarious part of the workforce, so their income is decimated.
The primary diagnosis for most of my clients is poverty. Living in poverty means they are experiencing crises everyday. Even without a global pandemic, they deal with threats of eviction, illegal lockouts, utility shut-offs and the choice of paying rent or getting health care. Resources and support systems barely exist.
Second, we need policies to address these inequalities. For my clients dealing with the ramifications of COVID-19, a lack of benefits — like paid sick leave and paid time off — means my clients can’t take care of loved ones who are sick with COVID-19. Many clients cannot afford copays or lack health insurance altogether when seeking medical attention. In order to ensure the most vulnerable among us survive the immediate disasters and the long-term recovery, we must enact policies that root out inequality at its core.
Lastly, this pandemic — and the all but certain recession to come — underscores the critical services civil legal aid attorneys provide communities. Every year, tens of millions of Americans find themselves in need of civil legal help, and that’s in the absence of a worldwide crisis. Imagine the need now. Yet, most will be shocked to find that you do not have the right to an appointed attorney if you cannot afford one in most civil cases. In three out of four state civil court cases, one or both sides have no legal representation. Wealth — or lack thereof — is your access to justice for some of the most consequential chapters of your life, including fighting a wrongful eviction, recourse against an abusive partner, protection of employment benefits, and so much more.
Among so many other things, this crisis has highlighted the deep inequities in our legal system. States and the federal government must significantly increase funding for civil legal aid so that everyone has the same rights under the law.
Recovery from this disaster will take years, not weeks. I’m still working on Katrina-related legal cases. But New Orleans has been here before. We’re a city that knows reinvention. Rebirth is in our DNA. But rebuilding starts with helping those vital to this spirit, and ensuring these protections remain in place for the next disaster that comes our way. That way, when this is over, and people return seeking respite and rebirth, the people of this city will be waiting for them.