“Ibuye ribonetse ntiryica isuka.”
This is a common saying in Kinyamulenge, which means,
“An identified stone can no longer harm the hoe.”
March 12 was the day the COVID-19 pandemic officially hit our fine state of Maine with its first positive case. Immediately after, in hopes of keeping everyone healthy and safe, Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of emergency. In the first weeks, fear of the unknown was obvious on people’s faces. No one knew how the virus was going to affect us, and we all wanted to learn how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from danger. The Maine Center for Disease Control recommended the preventative measures which have become so familiar to us now – social distancing, frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and disinfecting touchable surfaces. Above all, staying home was highly recommended as the most effective way of remaining safe from the virus.
Unfortunately, staying home was very hard for most people of color to do. Although many organizations and institutions, both private and public, took the extreme measure of closing their doors and asking their employees to work from home, essential frontline businesses – health care, grocery stores, group homes, food processing factories – remained open. And in Maine, those essential businesses are heavily staffed by people of color.
When the first case was announced in Maine, everyone – people of color as well as white people – were told by Gov. Mills and CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah that the virus did not discriminate. And in the early days, most people believed that to be true. We did not know at the time that the virus was actually going to disproportionately attack people from our communities. Then, as the virus picked up steam in Maine and more cases were identified, the data from the Maine CDC began to reveal an alarming racial disparity between how white people and people of color have been slammed by the virus.
In Maine, people of color make up only 7% of the population, but now count for over 32% of the state’s total number of COVID-19 cases. Reasons for this disproportionate impact include the crowded conditions that many people of color must live in because of challenging financial circumstances, making isolating and quarantining difficult; inadequate access to health care, resulting in high incidences of underlying medical conditions; and the necessity of continuing to work in frontline occupations despite the risks because of financial necessity. In other words, outcomes are related to racist policies.
Immigrant leaders, Latinx leaders, Tribal leaders, and leaders from the U.S.-born African American community are all seriously concerned about the health and safety of their people. Recently these leaders hosted a press conference, where they outlined their major concerns, including key areas that socially and economically impact their communities and must be changed, and asked Gov. Mills to work with them to prevent further devastation.
Recently, in Amjambo Africa’s first video news interview, I discussed racism and how to change the system, with Rev. Kenneth I. Lewis Jr., Senior Pastor at Green Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Portland. On June 30, he was appointed by Gov. Mills to the Permanent Commission of the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Maine Tribal Populations, which is focused on addressing inequities in Maine. Rev. Lewis spoke of the need for Black leaders from different communities in Maine – immigrant and U.S.-born African American alike – to unify, stressing the importance of working together on behalf of the entire community to speak truth to power about racism in Maine.
I join Rev. Lewis in urging all people of color to pull together and use the strength of our collective voice to advocate loudly for the change we need to see in our Maine community.
Georges Budagu Makoko
Publisher of Amjambo Africa