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MLK Parade in Belzoni, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta in 1999
Health disparities run deep in the Mississippi Delta, with racism rooted deeply in its history of slavery and sharecropping. Here, a man sits as marchers in a Martin Luther King Day parade go by in Belzoni, Miss., in January 1999. Photo by David Rae Morris

After Years of Neglect, the Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Black Mississippians

Much of the news coverage of COVID-19 has been about major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But as the nation struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19, rural areas such as the Mississippi Delta have started to see the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans in Mississippi.  

As of April 20, the Mississippi Department of Health reported that the state had a total of 4,716 cases. African Americans comprised 2,419 cases, while white people represented 1,540 of individuals testing positive for COVID-19. 

An examination of the number of deaths shows a bleak pattern. African Americans make up 64 percent of the 183 Mississippians who had died as of April 19. All of the seven deaths in Leflore County in the Delta have been African American. 

Itta Bena Mississippi Delta
Dr. Emmitt Riley’s Mississippi Delta hometown, Itta Bena in LeFlore County has many boarded-up businesses. All of the county’s COVID-19 deaths to date have been African American. Photo by Dr. Emmitt Riley

Years of Neglected Health Care

It is no surprise that this disease hits African Americans hardest when one considers the terrible political choices of former Gov. Phil Bryant and current Gov. Tate Reeves, and several members of the Legislature. A sad but harsh reality is that African Americans will suffer gravely from the compound effects of Covid-19. To understand the dynamics happening in Mississippi currently, you also have to understand that the state’s health-care system has suffered from years of neglect on the part of the state’s leadership.   

At the same time that Mississippi experienced significant declines in revenue, the State provided millions of dollars in tax breaks to large corporations while refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Refusing to expand Medicaid resulted in the State of Mississippi forgoing about $1 billion each year since 2013. 

The question that I would pose amid the COVID-19 global pandemic is who pays the price? In an area of the country suffering from high levels of concentrated poverty, unemployment, and major health disparities such as diabetes, hypertension, HIV infections and heart disease, it is likely that African American communities in the Mississippi Delta will pay a major price.

Finding access to quality health care is a challenge in the 19 counties between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Residents of the Mississippi Delta have to travel sometimes more than 180 miles to see cardiologists, gastroenterologists and other specialized health-care providers. In many rural towns, residents of the Mississippi Delta often rely on small clinics to see nurse practitioners as primary health-care providers. 

Other major issues facing Mississippi Delta residents are unemployment, access to health insurance and environmental racism. To think that these issues are unrelated to how COVID-19 is resulting in fatalities among African Americans is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of systemic racism. 

Desecration of Rural Hospitals

Politicians such as Phil Bryant and Gov. Tate Reeves understand that when they refuse to expand Medicaid in one of the nation’s poorest states, their inaction is causing harm to African American communities. One of the results of Mississippi’s refusal to expand Medicaid has been the desecration of rural hospitals in Mississippi.

A recent study, “The Rural Health Safety Net Under pressure: Rural Hospital Vulnerability,” found that five hospitals in the rural areas of Mississippi have closed, and 42 percent of rural hospitals in Mississippi are experiencing major financial issues.

 In a recent Clarion-Ledger article, Dr. Dan Jones, former chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the University of Mississippi, said that cuts to the state’s health-care system are “now costing lives” amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves COVID-19 - Mississippi Free Press
Gov. Tate Reeves strongly opposes expanding Medicaid in Mississippi. Dr. Emmitt Riley argues that is one reason African Americans in the Mississippi Delta face severe health disparities. Photo: Reeves Press Briefing

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight that Mississippi’s opposition to expanding health care had nothing to do with the state not needing the funds. Anybody who objectively looks at Mississippi knows we are ranked last on almost every measurable outcome.  Our state’s opposition to expanding health care is directly linked to negative racial attitudes and disdain for Barack Obama, as Micahel Telser’s 2012 study published in the American Journal of Political Science explained.

Even as COVID-19 is starting to affect African American communities disproportionately, the state’s leadership has not exemplified bold and decisive leadership. “We can’t wait until every single person can get tested every single day to open up our economy,” Gov. Reeves told FOX News recently.

Local Mayors Protecting Black Lives

Instead, local mayors such as Errick Simmons of Greenville and Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson have had to take a leadership role on this issue. Tate Reeves’ weak leadership on this issue reveals a sad reality, and that is that black lives do not matter to Mississippi’s governor.  

African American churches, civic organizations and other important allies must unite in order to prevent the spread of this virus in our community. We should all be reaching out to create and develop strategies as best we can to uplift and protect the most vulnerable. We must continue to support and encourage leaders like Simmons and Lumumba who are doing their very best to protect African American communities. 

In 1949, V.O. Key described Mississippi as a politics of frustration in “Southern Politics in State and Nation.”  Key used this language because the state was in 1949, and is in 2020, extremely poor. He then went on to argue that “hardcore of the political south resolves around the position of the negro.” 

Here we are, 71 years later, and both descriptions are still accurate to describe the political debacle that is taking place in Mississippi and the United States writ large. If nothing else, this global pandemic is showing us that elections matter. Policies Matter.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,000 words and factcheck information to We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.


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