From the desk of Paul Dragon, E.D. (12/18/2020)

Another Kind of Pandemic

In the early 1990’s,  I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa, one of the economically poorest nations in the world. In the small village in the Manding Mountains where I worked there was no running water or electricity and all the homes were made of mud brick and thatched rooves. In Mali as in many other economically depressed countries there are what the World Health Organization calls diseases of poverty. Some of the examples in the villages where I worked include malaria, malnutrition, leprosy, diarrheal diseases and respiratory infections. The infant mortality rate in Mali at that time was officially listed as 50 percent but in the Manding, at least in my limited experience, it seemed much higher.   We may look at these diseases of poverty abroad as sad but also remote and not relevant to our own experience here in the United States but in that we would be deceiving ourselves.  

The 2017 Census Bureau’s Official Poverty Measure reports that 40 million people - over one in every eight Americans - live in poverty. Almost half live in “deep poverty” living with less than $2 a day.  According to research documented in Social Science & Medicine (Volume 200, March 2018) of the 2.6 million people who die every year in the United States most of those deaths are associated with poverty. The International Journal of Epidemiology reports that the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy overall among wealthy nations. Research by the National Institutes of Health and the Social Security Administration found that, since 1990, “among the bottom (economic) quarter of Americans the life expectancy has either stagnated or decreased.” The National Center for Health Statistics states that in 2019, the U.S. longevity has declined for the second consecutive year with early mortality concentrated among the poor.  It is clear from the research that poverty and poor health mutually reinforce each other and “stack the deck” against the economically poor which leads to additional consequences in cost and concern for families, communities, and our nation. 

There is hope emerging and lessons learned from the pandemic on how we can improve equality, health and life expectancy. During the pandemic the poverty rate increased quickly and would have continued if not for the CARES Act which, despite its flaws lifted families above the poverty line according to Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. Certainly this kind of support needs to happen for the short-term as people and businesses try to emerge from the pandemic, but the United States can also take some of these short-term lessons to create the broad structural changes that lessen the income gap, eliminate health disparities, and improve life expectancy. Livable wages, universal access to health care, universal access to broadband, recalculating the archaic and absurd federal poverty rate, raising federal eligibility benefits for programs like the Community Services Block Grant to 200 percent of poverty while continuing to support anti-hunger programs will strengthen our families, our communities, and our country. 

One day standing just outside my hut with a friend, a woman with an infant tied to her back and covered with cloth to protect her from the sun was coming back into the village from the peanut fields. She passed by and softly greeted us. Perhaps it was the tone in her voice and the fact that she was leaving the field in mid-day, but my friend turned to me and said in Malinke, “a bana” meaning the child is dead. Minutes later after the woman got to her family’s compound a horrible wailing ensued as the infant’s death became known.  
Many in our country know this heart rendering sorrow especially as the pandemic has disproportionately affected the economically poor, and it’s time in such a wealthy nation that we find permanent solutions for this other pandemic.  


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