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Ann Lee and two-time Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn run Community Organized Relief Effort, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving lives and strengthening communities affected by or vulnerable to crisis. CORE goes where help is most needed, bringing relief to communities facing the realities of both natural and man-made disasters. Here, they’ve written a guest column for Deadline on the dangers that this growing coronavirus pandemic is creating on the elderly and poor and what must be done to address the deadly crisis.
Disasters are more frequent and more severe with each passing year, as climate change impacts floods, hurricanes, droughts, wild-fires, immigration patterns, and now even the spread of disease. But while disasters are inevitable, crises are human made. This is something we learned when CORE was born out of the response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed more than 200,000 people and displaced over 1 million in just three minutes. We’ve seen it demonstrated again and again in our years responding to disasters since; and it’s true today, too, as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic and what may prove to be one of the great public health challenges of our time. But always, it’s the most vulnerable, the elderly, and the poor among us are at the greatest risk, and the last to recover.
And as much as crises are human made, so is a robust and lifesaving response. Fortunately, every day, community organizations are stepping in to serve at-risk communities and affected populations, including older adults, children, and people with preexisting conditions. As we see time and again, these local leaders are tireless heroes. They are on the front lines, and they’re the ones to catch the thousands of people who have already fallen through the cracks in our system. But even these heroes are not enough to respond adequately to the coronavirus. This virus is complicated and new, and we do not have the safety net in place to deal with it. To see as much, we need look no further than how it has impacted one community: the Lumbee Tribe in Robeson County, North Carolina.
CORE responded to Hurricane Florence in 2018, in a town called Lumberton; and it wasn’t rocket science for our organization to target Lumberton before the hurricane had even landed. We overlaid income maps with flooding maps and found Lumberton, the poorest county in the state, devastated by the effects of global warming, with a majority African American and Native American Lumbee population. We partnered with chairman Harvey Godwin of the Lumbee Tribe then and we are still there with them today, repairing homes. Now in response to the coronavirus, we’re working together to provide hygiene and food kits to area elderly, who are the most vulnerable to the virus. This, despite the fact that Chairman Godwin was himself tested last Friday for coronavirus, presenting a fever and a dry cough. Trying to lead our response, it took an excruciating five days to learn he did not have coronavirus. It again reminded me of Haiti, where one of the biggest lessons learned was that when the responders themselves are hit just as hard, you need critical outside support.
Since we saw them on the ground saving lives first-hand in Haiti, we have believed that the greatest humanitarian force and the most effective medical relief organization in the world is the U.S. military. The National Guard has already been deployed on a limited basis, but our local and state authorities are stretched beyond their capacity to respond, to say nothing of our community-based organizations. Our government must commit the federal military now. With its unmatched ability to manage the overwhelming logistics of crisis management, and singular access to critical resources, it is essential if our leaders are going to move quickly and decisively to support vulnerable populations and the local community-based groups putting their lives on the line to serve them.
Moreover, our response today to the coronavirus should, at once, be a direct and aggressive saving of life, while at the same time a training ground that may rewire our brains to recognize emerging threats on a world gone warm. To stand up and face the devil in the eye. Be it disease, terrorism, poverty, or the human impact on the only environment we’ll ever have.