A year ago this week, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Several days before that declaration, my Mississippi Free Press co-founder and editor Donna Ladd and I had attended an excellent national health disparities conference in Jackson presented by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It was a debut of sorts as the first time we attended anything as founders of the Mississippi Free Press. Donna even moderated the closing plenary session and toured the CEO and executive team around South Jackson with Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr. and former gang leader Benny Ivey to discuss challenges there. I spent time between sessions talking with U.S. health-care thought leaders. I left each conversation more and more stunned.
Every person I talked to was in a panic as they tried to process data, make projections and protect their communities from the incoming pandemic. People set up make-shift war rooms on lobby couches while they tried to sneak in a little authentic Mississippi food. Folks in the South fretted that Mardi Gras was likely a super-spreader event because state and city officials didn’t have accurate information about the impending pandemic. One health official from a large urban city had received special permission to leave her state. The governor had recently banned travel for key health-care leaders. She was only allowed to come because he figured this was the best way to quickly compare notes with other urban areas. It turns out he was right.
It was clear all these health experts knew something we should have known but didn’t. Many of those assembled had friendships spanning decades and most U.S. health-care crises. They gave one another extra-long hugs as we all left the Jackson Convention Complex. No one I talked to had any confidence we’d gather again in 2020. I felt like I’d been punched.
It was not our plan to start the Mississippi Free Press in March 2020 as the pandemic began. Our team dropped the first MFP stories the week of March 15 because, quite frankly, we had little choice. COVID was in our state, and our state didn’t have a plan. We reported on the hodgepodge of mask ordinances across the state, the need for equitable responses, our state’s first COVID death, and demanded data by race and gender. The soft launch, as we’d termed our plan to start the MFP, morphed into a full-blown media outlet with a packed COVID-19 archive pretty much overnight because the times called for it. The MFP was all of three weeks old when The New Yorker featured our COVID-19 coverage.
The times continue to call for our reporters to tell the truth and shame the devil as Mississippi grapples with vaccine access, no statewide mask mandate and schools pulling back on virtual options. Last week on MFP Live, Donna and I talked with Dr. Nina Washington and Dr. Kimberly Smash about COVID-19 and the Black community. Again, I felt as if I’d been punched.
Dr. Smash used John Henry’s parable to describe the condition of Black folks in America. At the end of the parable, John Henry beats the steam engine brought in to outwork him. While it looks like John Henry won, he dies moments after the competition is over. People of the diaspora can look like we are winning against systemic racism or health disparities because we just keep going. But we are not winning because the system is wired against us.
I challenge you to find any Mississippi news outlet that’s covered our COVID crisis as thoroughly and with such urgency and impact as this one. This crisis is not over. Help us tell the stories of all Mississippians. We also need partners like you to help fund solutions journalism by Mississippians about Mississippi and to support our “Equity and Resilience: Black Women and COVID-19 in Mississippi” collaboration with the Jackson Advocate. Consider a recurring donation today. No amount is too small and, of course, no amount is too big.
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