Fighting higher levels of infection, Lafayette’s black community leaders work to bridge deadly gaps

Volunteers distribute dinners at Super 1 Foods in North Lafayette Photo by Travis Gauthier

In just an hour on a Saturday afternoon in April, Fellowship Full Gospel Ministries gave away 350 free dinners to the public in the parking lot of Super 1 Foods on Lafayette’s north side. 

“A lot of people lost their jobs, hours have been cut. A meal makes a difference,” says Pastor Charles E. Banks Sr. “We just wanted to give back to the community to show our love and our appreciation.”

But that was not Banks’ only reason for the recent drive-thru distribution; it was also a means to get the word out to the minority community about COVID-19. Accompanying the dinners were informational flyers on the deadly disease, which has disproportionately impacted the black population in Louisiana.

“I think that African Americans don’t seem to understand how serious this is,” Banks says. And he believes that not taking heed may cost them their lives. “We — as African Americans — have to get it together, or there’s going to be a whole lot of black folks in the cemetery.” 

Ever since Gov. John Bel Edwards released startling figures on the racial disparity of coronavirus cases statewide, a growing number of community leaders and organizations have ramped up awareness and action campaigns to combat the crisis.

On April 14, the Louisiana Urban League and the Louisiana Public Health Institute hosted a virtual event called “NO, WE’RE NOT IMMUNE: The Impact of Coronavirus on African-American Whole Health in Louisiana Tele-Town Hall.”

Almost a week later, on April 20, local group Black Folks Talking kicked off a regular community conference call series that will address not only health issues, but also economics and education in the black and brown communities.

“We’re working to develop a conscious people,” says Lafayette NAACP President Marja Broussard who served as moderator. “We have to be solution-driven. We need to be active and proactive.” 

Three days later, on April 23, Lafayette Consolidated Government debuted the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, which will also meet weekly. “We don’t want to just jump out there. We want to make sure we have a targeted response,” says LCG Chief of Minority Affairs Carlos Harvin.

African American members of the Acadiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, known as AVOAD, are also assessing and responding to community needs on a regular basis.

Community organizer Tina Shelvin Bingham, a member of both AVOAD and LCG’s Health Equity Task Force, does not believe she was the only one surprised by the governor’s news. “I think it was shocking to everybody,” she says.

But Bingham admits that she should not have been caught off guard. As chairman of the McComb-Veazey Community Development Corporation and community development director for Lafayette Habitat for Humanity, she has witnessed the devastation wreaked on disadvantaged populations as a result of natural disasters and turmoil.

“When things like this happen within our community,” Bingham notes, “it’s the ones not in the majority who are the hardest hit.”

Broussard, who also serves as NAACP state vice president of District D, agrees, pointing specifically to Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago. “African American people are on the top of what is bad and the bottom of what is good — as far the stats go,” she says.

The question lurking in everyone’s mind now is how Lafayette Parish compares to the state. Does Lafayette have a higher or lower racial disparity? Harvin is among those waiting patiently for the release of figures that will further detail demographic breakdowns by parish.

Carlos Harvin, LCG’s chief of minority affairs

So far, the Louisiana Department of Health has released parish-level figures that show coronavirus fatalities by race. Provisionally, data released in late April for this region shows that black people are succumbing to coronavirus at a disproportionately high rate. As of April 21, African Americans made up 39% of coronavirus deaths but only 27% of the population of LDH Region 4, which includes Lafayette and six nearby parishes. LDH has not released hospitalizations or infections by race or updated that dataset since it was first published. 

That means a clear picture of how the pandemic is impacting Lafayette’s black community has yet to emerge. Until then, Harvin knows the local task force will focus on both the parish’s and city’s predominantly black districts, 1 and 5. He notes that the Office of Public Health’s heat maps show clusters of cases in these areas even though the racial identities are unknown at this time.

Lafayette Parish Councilman Abraham Rubin, who represents the parish’s District 5 and sounded the alarm on the lack of social distancing prior to Good Friday, is even more concerned today about safety guidelines not being followed.

“It seems that it’s getting worse,” he says. “We are not made not to socialize.” 

Although other states have experienced racial disparities in their cases, Rubin is not alone in blaming the local region’s unique culture as a culprit when it comes to COVID-19.

Banks, who is not originally from Louisiana, also cited the culture that relishes in camaraderie and cuisine as a hindrance to safety. Family gatherings and festivals, along with zydeco music and dancing, go hand in hand. “That’s what the people are used to,” Banks says.

Perhaps most at stake and compounding the situation are the underlying health issues — diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, asthma and cardiovascular disease — that are prevalent in African Americans and make them more susceptible to the ravages of coronavirus.

Those interviewed were especially concerned about the younger generation disregarding social distancing and unwittingly passing on the virus to their older loved ones who may not recover as easily.

That is another reason why Harvin advocates “a long-term recovery plan.” Long after a vaccine is available, he says, “We want to emphasize healthy living, a healthy lifestyle.”

But there are still other extenuating circumstances that may circumvent success. First, there is the matter of trust — or rather, distrust. “I think the message is getting out, but it may not be resonating and hitting some people,” Bingham says. She believes the cause may be a mixture of reasons that culminate with the messenger. Most people of color do not necessarily rely on the white mainstream for their news and information, according to Bingham, nor do they frequent the same locations. They are more apt to trust those who look like them and are familiar with their situation.

Tina Shelvin Bingham, center, of McComb-Veazey Community Development Corporation Photo by Christiaan Mader

Bingham also advocates long-term solutions and not “one-all” solutions because not everyone has access to the same resources. “You have to meet people where they are,” she says, noting the digital divide in the community.

Also complicating matters, according to Harvin, is defiance. “Nobody can tell me what to do — I’m grown,” is a common sentiment, he says. But Harvin believes such statements peaked before the governor’s alarming numbers were revealed. 

In recent weeks, the desire to resist has also been evident among President Donald Trump’s supporters who are denouncing state closures during protests across the country.

Back at home, precautionary measures have become “words of wisdom,” according to Harvin, because they help to save lives. Banks’ biblical commentary is fitting: “We perish by the lack of knowledge.”

What has also been evident is that misinformation — or disinformation — on COVID-19 seeped through social media. There were posts stating that African Americans were immune to the coronavirus. Such commentary was sometimes made in jest, but also passed along as fact.

Whether intentional or not, these posts produced an unstable foundation, creating a false sense of security. “A lot of people hold social media as the gospel,” Bingham says. “They think everything on social media is true.” 

And that led to more complacency. “We were caught unprepared,” Harvin says.

Broussard said that it will take the energy of young people and the wisdom of the elders — a collective effort — to succeed. “Just because it’s not done tomorrow or next week, you don’t give up — you keep going,” she says.

Banks plans to continue going live on Facebook to keep the public informed about safety measures, and will keep sharing with other pastors the information he receives as a member of the area VOAD. He also is taking advantage of the fact that members of his congregation are health care workers, and can share insight on the virus as well.

Harvin wants Lafayette to be prepared with enough quality health care centers, testing sites and protective gear, as well as a task force ready to set short-term and long-term strategies for any battle ahead.

“We’ve been warned of a second wave in the fall,” Harvin says. “And it could come back with a vengeance.”