Coronavirus Forces Detroit to Confront Poverty Epidemic

This column is part of The PuLSE Institute’s ongoing series, “Coronavirus and Poverty,” about how health inequities impact COVID-19. For information about this public health series email

By Bankole Thompson

Detroit for a longtime has held the unflattering distinction of being one of the largest poverty cities in the nation. That designation is something that has never garnered any serious attention from the highest levels of Detroit’s government over the last seven years. It has focused mostly on revitalizing areas like downtown, Midtown and Corktown which appeal more to the economic elites and their business interest, than the inner city which remains a dungeon for inequality.

In fact in 2017, when Mayor Mike Duggan was seeking reelection, his campaign twice declined an invitation to participate in the only mayoral town hall on poverty that was held at Calvary Baptist Church. His opponent former State. Sen. Coleman Young II was the lone speaker at the forum, which was attended by 600 Detroiters who were concerned and deeply interested to hear from those seeking the top office in the city about their plan to tackle the cruel poverty that exists in Detroit. That declination by Duggan to participate in a forum to discuss what tangible programs he would implement to confront the inequities in the city, followed an earlier comment he made trying to dismiss the notion of “two Detroits,” by calling it “fiction” even though it explains the economic divide that exists in the city today.

Despite mounting evidence that shows Detroit is the epicenter of poverty in the nation at 33.4%, officials at City Hall have been reluctant to make it a major focus of the city’s revitalization. Instead what we’ve witnessed over the years has been massive investments pouring into the business district and its surrounding areas, while significant portions of the city remain a perennial underclass with only paltry investments. Even after a recent Detroit News investigation, found that homeowners were overtaxed by $600 million from 2010-2016, the Duggan administration responded with callous indifference to the plight of struggling homeowners instead of a full compensation for those who lost their homes and finances during the period recorded in the newspaper probe.

Poverty as a man-made disaster has remained the epidemic that Detroit’s leadership headed by Duggan has long ignored. It is not the focus of the high profile meetings held by the city’s top business leaders. It is not the kind of topic that is tabled as a major discussion at elite forums such as the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island, yet it is the single biggest issue holding the lives of many Detroiters hostage.

But with the arrival of the deadly coronavirus that is raving the city by threatening its underserved population, poverty has emerged as an issue in the conversation about solutions to the pandemic. There is heightened concern right now that the coronavirus could spread rapidly among Detroiters who have underlying health issues because they lack access to quality care. Poverty has confined many of them to a state of permanent destitution because they don’t have the resources that will grant them top medical attention during this period of the crisis.

All of a sudden officials involved in working to contain the spread of the virus are discussing the crisis of poverty as central to the pandemic. Because in the last 72 hours, Detroit has emerged as one of the hot spots in the nation for COVID-19, as confirmed cases now rise above 1000, there is an attempt to understand the driving factor behind the growing number of people getting infected. This is even more so after US Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in a CBS interview that Detroit is headed for a “worse week next week.”

The state’s Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, pointed specifically to poverty in places like Detroit as an issue as the state is trying to determine the best way to fight the pandemic.

“There is no question that the COVID-19 outbreak is having a more significant impact on marginalized and poorer communities, particularly communities of color. We know that people with these underlying medical conditions are more likely to become severely ill from COVID-19,” Khaldun told the Detroit News.

Khaldun should know more than anyone else about the dire economic and social conditions in Detroit because she was the city’s health department director. She worked in an administration that was lukewarm towards addressing the challenges of economic inequality before deciding to go work for  Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Added to this conundrum of inequality is the outrageous water shutoffs in the city which has been a constant marker of the Duggan administration led by Gary Brown, the executive director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Gov. Whitmer and her close ally Duggan, who refused to declare water as a human right, announced a joint 30-day moratorium on water shutoffs in Detroit on the same day their presidential candidate of choice Joe Biden was visiting Detroit. The announcement followed weeks after Whitmer herself resisted calls to issue an executive order to turn on water for poor and distressed Detroiters and contradicting one of her main campaign promises to guarantee no Michigander faces water service interruptions.

To this day the city has not turned on water for all of the 3,000 residents who were initially scheduled to be granted relief during this period even as public health experts warn that the frequent washing of hands could reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

It should not take a pandemic of this magnitude to remind us that there is a direct correlation between health and economics. In fact, Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, a noted physician once said, “socioeconomic status is the most powerful predictor of disease, disorder, injury and mortality we have.”

Dr. Nancy Adler, director of the Center for Health and Community at the University of California, San Francisco puts it differently: “It’s difficult to exercise in an unsafe neighborhood, or to eat well in a neighborhood where healthy foods are either not sold or are more expensive than unhealthy options.”

That truism did not register with the Duggan administration. At least it did not reflect in their actions to significantly reduce the socioeconomic inequities faced by many Detroiters.  Now as Detroit’s future hangs in the balance as COVID-19 expands, Mayor Duggan and the entire apparatus of city government must understand that their actions will presage things to come.

For a pandemic that has arrested America’s largest black city, the onus is on Duggan to ensure that there are no barriers to Detroiters who need to get tested for COVID-19. There should be free access to testing and the administration should move with all deliberate speed to do so.

Detroit’s response to this public health crisis should not be about getting back to business as usual by continuing with the building of skyscrapers in downtown and Midtown. It should not be about maintaining the status quo after the pandemic. Rather this crisis ought to force us to examine the serious issues affecting poor people in Detroit who are cut out of the engines of economic prosperity with no healthy future as the coronavirus now stands to engulf them.

Bankole Thompson is the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute. He is a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News where his column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. He is the host of REDLINE, a news magazine and hard-nosed commentary show on 910AM Super Station-Detroit, which airs Monday through Friday from 11am-1pm EST.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

One comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.