Jaylen Minefield

As we have seen during the current COVID-19 pandemic and other instances of disaster, the United States of America’s government and leadership has failed its citizens time and time again. The lack of preparation, unwillingness to take heed of professionals' advice and faltering in the necessary distribution of federal aid needed to ensure people’s safety, has once again led to preventable death and hardship among American citizens.

Much like in the catastrophic event of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in 2005, the aftermath has revealed the federal government's failure to protect its citizens — proving once again that if past failures are not acknowledged, corrected and condemned, they are destined to happen again.

The responses to combat the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic share a remarkably similar pattern: the government’s lack of preparation. Prior to Katrina’s landfall, weather forecasters warned government officials of the likely landfall and destruction that the storm possessed. Instead of focusing efforts on ensuring the safety of citizens, the officials dismissed the warnings of weather professionals.

The lack of proactive efforts by those public servants to maintain their constituents’ safety created mass confusion and chaos both in the public as well as among government officials once the gravity of the storm became unable to ignore. This confusion was only highlighted when unqualified individuals were thrown into positions of leadership concerning the efforts of FEMA and National Response Plan in the hardest-hit region of southern Louisiana.

Much like the response to Katrina, government officials, including the president, dismissed warnings and from healthcare professionals when the COVID-19 virus first began surfacing.

Despite clear warnings from President Obama’s administration of the likelihood of a pandemic, Donald Trump dismantled the country's pandemic response team upon his arrival to the White House. This vacuum likely cost the United States valuable time and access to information concerning the severity of the outbreaks in other countries around the world. Eventually, a task force was formed to handle the nation’s response to the virus. Similar to those put in leadership roles during the response to Katrina, the coronavirus task force was being led by Mike Pence and other elected officials, most of which lacked any medical experience or qualifications.

And in the midst of mismanaging these crises, public officials were also misleading the general public. In the case of Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 outbreak, faulty information delivered from trusted government officials delayed key preventative measures like evacuations in the New Orleans area and proper precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. In fact, Trump repeatedly misinformed the American people about the seriousness of the virus by initially calling it a hoax and then continually saying it was comparable to the seasonal flu, both of which were proven to be untrue. In both events, leaving the decisions of the wellbeing to incompetent individuals in the given field yielded hundreds if not thousands of preventable deaths.

Additionally, the failures of our elected officials were highlighted by the lack of necessary supplies once the hurricane and virus began. Due to the lack of preparation and confusion in the response efforts, the hardest-hit areas during the storm did not have access to much-needed supplies. Indecision from the federal government delayed vital supplies and support from FEMA by several days, leaving Americans abandoned by their government when they needed help the most.

The detrimental results of ignorance and indecision are also seen when examining the desperation that the areas most affected by the virus, such as New York, have for medical supplies and equipment. It required days and weeks of pleading from state officials for the federal government to intervene with aid. The tardiness of this response created healthcare crises of inadequate space in hospitals, lack of essential equipment such as ventilators and inaccessibility to proper equipment for our medical professionals to ensure their own safety while giving their all to fight this disease. Not only were these two catastrophic events mishandled, they also caused similar groups to suffer the brunt of the failures in leadership.

Unfortunately, those hardest-hit by both of the government’s mishandlings were among the most vulnerable individuals in the population. The reality is that impoverished neighborhoods and communities of color were and are much more susceptible to the negative impact of these events. In Louisiana, a state comprising a black population that represents roughly 32 percent of the entire population, 51 percent of the lives lost due to Hurricane Katrina were black men and women. Explanations for this include a lack of financial ability to evacuate and late notice from officials, but the most significant explanation can be found when reviewing New Orleans’ neglect to maintain the levies. This was especially true on the east and north side of the city, which consisted of a large population of individuals of color and impoverished people. It was found that roughly 10 percent of the foundations of these levies contained sand opposed to the Louisiana clay like they were supposed to be. The failure to maintain infrastructure and organize evacuation plans for the citizens of New Orleans led to the premature death of hundreds of innocent Americans.

Comparable is the disparate effect that COVID-19 has on communities of color. For instance in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, over 80 percent of deaths related to COVID-19 are Black individuals despite the Black men and women accounting for only 26 percent of the population. Likewise, the city of Chicago has also experienced the same disparate impact on its Black population: 70 percent of COVID-19 related deaths in Chicago are African Americans while only comprising 30 percent of the city’s population.

Similar to the explanation of the disparate effect in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the disparities in the COVID-19 outbreak among demographics originate from America’s reluctance to fix issues of systemic racism and classism. In the case of COVID-19, many of the issues can be attributed to the lack of healthcare coverage, improper and deplorable housing conditions and financial instability which forces many to work even if they are immunocompromised or ill. Additionally, discriminatory policies in many impoverished communities of color that have never been properly addressed make fresh foods inaccessible to an entire community, leaving these individuals more susceptible to chronic health issues.

In short, the United States of America has fumbled the bag during periods of distress time and time again due to arrogance, ignorance and negligence. The government refuses to learn from past mistakes, thus continuing to put American lives at risk in the present and the future. In addition to the poor response, the disproportionate impact on disadvantaged demographics could have been prevented by examining the history of inequality in America concerning healthcare, proper housing, infrastructure in minority and poor communities and financial opportunity.

This column's primary focus is to discuss, critique, and learn from America’s missteps in order to prevent the recurrence in the future. Unfortunately, the crisis we’re living in serves as a painful reminder of why it is important to do so.

My thoughts and prayers are with everyone during this difficult time. Stay safe.

Jaylen Minefield is a junior majoring in sociology. He can be reached atjminefie@vols.utk.edu.

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

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