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VIDEO: Congresswoman Barbara Lee Talks To BR About Surviving The COVID-19 Pandemic

OAKLAND (KPIX) - Congresswoman Barbara Lee talked to Black Renaissance about the coronavirus, its impact on African Americans and communities of color, and the work she's doing on the part of her constituents and all Americans, to ensure their economic recovery.

Representative Lee (D-California) stressed the importance of the shelter in place, physical distancing, hand washing and sterilization, and urges everyone to follow the scientists and health care advisors as we weather this pandemic.

She is fighting for better data tracking here in the U.S. where a disproportionate number of black and brown people are dying from COVID-19 due to lack of health care, and the systemic racial disparities that have existed "since the Middle Passage."

Rep. Lee wants everyone to know about the work she, Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus are doing to help all of her constituents weather the economic and financial crisis, now, and during the recovery, not just corporations, but for individuals, gig workers, 1099 self-employed workers and small businesses.

Constituents who need immediate help should call Rep. Lee's district office directly at (510) 763-0370. Also, they can visit her website -- -- for a list of links to important federal, state and local resources.

Finally, as social psychologist, Lee talks about the importance of physical distancing... but is careful to stress the importance staying connected to one another.

"We will get through this," says Lee. "It's tough. It could get tougher we're hearing... but still -- and still, we rise."

Here is a transcript of her conversation on April 9 with BR host Jan Mabry from their homes, via videoconference. It had been about a month since the shelter in place order was issued in Northern California, in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Jan Mabry: Congresswoman Barbara Lee, welcome to Black Renaissance. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Happy to be with you, Jan.

Jan Mabry: You know, you've always spoken for me and I know you speak for so many of your constituents and I think they need to hear from you now more than ever, perhaps. So let's just jump in -- I know I only have you for a second, because you are in the trenches every day. My first question. You know, we've gotten so many mixed signals since the beginning, since it was when the coronavirus was still in Wuhan (China). There were folks saying that it was a hoax, then you had all kinds of false remedies and medical information coming on the Internet. I even heard some folks saying that black people couldn't catch it, that we were immune, and conspiracy theories. For those who still need to hear it, could you please speak to the importance of the shelter in place?

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: First of all, let me just say we're in this together. So I'm really happy to be with you today. And just know that being in it together means that we all have to really, in many ways, unite and follow the health care directives, and we're gonna get out of this together. Let me give you just a bit of history. First of all, I serve on the Appropriations Committee, and I serve on the committee that funds all of our health care, global health hospitals, community clinics, Systematically, we have seen this president come forward with budgets that totally decimate the Office of Minority Health, for example, health disparities, the Pandemic Office -- every office that would have predicted this pandemic was coming and then .. (so) then we would have had the response and the protocols ready to move. But instead, this administration was not prepared. And so what happened was that because of the lag in time, I mean, he called it a hoax, you know, and many people believed that. We can not believe that. This is deadly. And so from the top, from the Commander-in-Chief, from the president, United States, from day one, we were told it was a hoax. So we had to get in there very quickly as members of Congress and try to turn this around, because we knew that this was deadly. I mean, I know Dr. Fauci (Director of Allergy and Infectious Diseases). I've worked with him on HIV and AIDS for 21 years. And in January actually was in Darfour, Sudan, and came back through Ethiopia and everyone who had on masks. And then came back to the United states and I said that something is going on. What is it? Couldn't get this administration in any way to to respond.

So finally, thank God our great mayor, (San Francisco) Mayor London Breed saw the signs. She was reading the data and she knew we had to do something quickly. So she declared a state of emergency. And I just have to commend her because it was this African-American woman mayor who set the state on the right course in terms of physical distancing and then the rest, well, not even the rest of the country yet, but the state of California and many, many states now.

And so here we are today. We know what works. And we know because so many deaths have happened that have occurred in China and in Spain and Italy. We know what we need to do. And physical distancing, washing one's hands at least for 20 seconds, hand sanitizer if we can find it, (which we're working on now because the supply chain is all messed up), but we know what works. And so I'm really encouraging and urging everyone who is here and listening to this to please follow the directives of our health care advisers, because the scientists and the health care advisers know how to begin to come out of this, even though we still don't have any answers about it (the coronavirus). So we need the correct health care information from our health experts and then we need the economic impacts and know what we have to do to turn this economy around. So it's health care. We've got to save people's lives. We've got to save people's jobs. We've got to get help with the economic recovery.

Jan Mabry: There there have been a lot of the disparities in the numbers of black and brown people that are falling victim to Covid-19. And when you look at it globally no, in Italy and there were Italians and in Britain, there were Brits (of all races) dying. But here in America, perhaps it's because we don't have access to proper health care or we have pre-existing conditions, it seems that there is a disproportionate number of black and brown people who are victims. Could you speak a little bit to that?

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Sure. It's all of that, let me tell you. What we're seeing now are the manifestations of systemic and institutional racism. When you look at what we're seeing now, we know that since the Middle Passage, since slavery, there've been huge disparities in health care, in economic and wealth, in the wealth gap, in jobs, in housing. So systemic discrimination has been with us. That's what we've been fighting for. All of us. For all of our lives.

So here we are now dealing with with a health care pandemic. The health disparities in the black community are huge because of the history of this country not addressing systemic racism and health disparities. So we know and when you look at what happened, for example, Charles Blow, in the New York Times wrote an op ed and it's really something, It compares what happened in Italy with those who perished and died. Seventy-five percent had hypertension or heart disease. A large percentage had asthma. A large percentage had diabetes. A large percentage lived in close quarters. A large percentage were frontline workers. You go on and on and on. It tracks exactly what the underlying issues are in our community. And then you put on top of that lack of access to health care and the horrible kind of discrimination that exists. Many states have not even expanded Medicaid.

So you've got layers and layers and layers of social determinants that have given rise to this. And so what we have to do now is, and again... what I'm doing with the Congressional Black Caucus, and as co-chair of our steering and policy committee, being the only woman in African-American leadership, is working to try to get the CDC, to put forth this data as relates to race and ethnicity. Because you see, and I will give one example, Milwaukee County, I think twenty-six, twenty-seven percent of the residents are African-American. Eighty-one percent of the deaths from Covid-19 are African-American. Look at Louisiana. Seventy percent of the deaths are African-American. I could just go on and on and on. And what is CDC doing? They have not even done the data collection. So, we got it in bill that, of course, didn't pass today, but we're going to keep fighting for language and requirements that the CDC collect this data and make it public quickly so we know how to target medically underserved communities.

And we insist that we get these tests, these rapid response tests into our communities because we've met with and talked with many of our wonderful, unbelievable presidents of African-American medical schools. They have the path and they have the roadmap. If we could just get the political will to do this because our people are dying in disproportionate numbers. They're not getting treated. They're not getting tested. And then we see the disproportionate deaths. And it's a really terrible time. And so I'm urging you to mobilize, organize. Let your elected officials know that we have got to get these test kits out quickly in medically underserved communities. We've got to get this data in quick.

Jan Mabry: Now, there's the recovery in terms of our health, of course, but there's also a financial hit. We are taking a huge hit. Some 17 million people filed for unemployment (since the pandemic). A big portion of them were in California, I'm sure. People are getting call centers. They can't get any help. This is kind of a civics lesson because if you never knew what your state or local or federal government did, you're learning now. This is a crash course with the coronavirus. What is the federal government ...doing to help folks who can't pay their bills? We can't pay our bills. We can't pay our rent. We can't pay our mortgages. What's the federal government doing?

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: First of all, let me just say the African-American community has not recovered from the 2010 recession. So we're starting really way below the curve. I mean, we're way down. Obviously, the wealth gap is huge. We lost our property during the subprime crisis. So we've got a lot of issues that are unique, unfortunately, to us.

So what are we doing? OK. On the federal level, we've passed three bills. We've put in some of the bills pre-testing, of course, which we still have to see happen. But on the economic front, we have put forth billions of dollars for small business loans. But guess what? Oh, and we included individuals who have, for instance, 1099 single proprietors, for shop owners, barbershop owners, nail shops, all of the employees, faith groups, the churches, their employees, 501(c)(3)s (non-profits). We have put into those provisions money to under the Payroll Protection Act to allow people to stay on the payroll. If in fact the organization commits to keep, I think it's 90 percent or 95 percent of those employees on the payroll after this is over. But guess what? That money is like first come, first served. So it's so hard to access.

Jan Mabry: There's another one that you guys are working on. And that one particularly addresses small businesses with fewer than 10 employees.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: That's right.

Jan Mabry: What about folks, I mean, a lot of people, myself included, we aren't used to dealing with the Small Business Administration... we don't know you have to go to your bank. There are so many hurdles in order to even get to the information.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: And plus the banks, we're dealing with this as we speak, are trying to say you have to have a preexisting relationship with the bank, first of all, and have to be an SBA lender with the bank. So we're trying, and I'm on the Appropriations Committee, Congresswoman Maxine Waters as chair of Financial Services Committee. So we, in this bill today that (Republican House Leader Mitch) McConnell wouldn't go for, we had about $60 billion set aside for, say, credit unions, community institutions, unbanked individuals. And so we have to have a separate funding stream and pool. Non-profits. I mean, what nonprofits have had to deal with SBA? Please. I mean come on. Which members of the clergy and churches have had to deal with SBA.

So we're trying to unpack all of this and we're trying to make this streamlined as possible. But just know, the agencies are not equipped even with their infrastructure and their architecture, their technology to even, if the money was there -- and money, you know, is there somewhere, they can't even get it out.

So what I'm doing -- and my staff they're phenomenal, they work 24/7 for my constituents, like for other members, especially the Black Caucus -- if you're having trouble with unemployment compensation, if you're having trouble with getting through to the SBA, if you're having trouble with the loans, if you have a trouble with anything get in touch with my office. We are being advocates. I mean, we always do casework, but now, it's like, we're bringing people getting people back from foreign countries because they couldn't get on planes. So we're doing casework around the clock.

So until we as federal officials get this straight, and can do the right thing with Mitch McConnell, because this thing, again, has to be bipartisan with McConnell, then Trump -- remember civics lessons -- then Trump has to sign the bill.

Jan Mabry: Yes.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Elections, elections, elections in November. Because we can't get McConnell and Trump to go for it, what do we do? But I can guarantee you one thing. Members of the Black Caucus and Democrats are fighting each and every day to address all of the issues you just mentioned.

Unemployment compensation, okay, so we were able to add for those 1099 individuals and individuals are eligible for unemployment compensation, which isn't a lot. But we added $600 a week, which in California is nothing. But that's all we could get a $600 up from whatever the standard unemployment compensation is. We also did the $1200 for individuals, through a sort of a direct rebate. We have to go back. This needs to happen every month. We can't be we can't be just a one time thing.

Jan Mabry: I know, one month is not going to cut it.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: One month's not going to help. So now we tried to put more money - which McConnell wouldn't go for, into our SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and food stamp program, because now we have millions more who need to access food banks and need SNAP benefits. So this is a tough negotiation with the Republicans. Just know that.

Jan Mabry: And I'm so happy to have you negotiating for us.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Oh, but listen, if we. That's what we're there to do. That, and case work, and being an advocate. So we're doing that. But people need to understand that, you know, until we get it right from the federal government, we're working hard and we will be an advocate for whatever you're eligible for. And just know again, we're in this together.

Jan Mabry: OK. Last question. I got you from one minute according to my computer. (Laughter) If you're feeling overwhelmed, I mean, you know, this is not a slumber party. It drives me nuts when, you know, there's all this happy talk... what's wrong with me, because I'm afraid, what's wrong with me because this is... it's hard to imagine the unimaginable. It's hard to conceive the inconceivable. What do we do? What do what do you do when you're feeling overwhelmed? What advice do you have for us?

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Well, I go back to my faith. I know we're tired, and come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me the road would be easy. Didn't come this far for Him to leave me. OK. So I say my prayers every day and I'm reminded of how the struggles black people have been through, and women, and black women. We've been through so much in this country -- and still we rise.

Jan Mabry: And still we rise.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: OK. So now, by profession I'm a psychiatric social worker. So I understand also the mental health and emotional toll this is taking. And so we've got to, one, connect with your family and friends as much as you can. You know, learn new things. I mean, I have been in my house for five days straight and 20 years. (Laughter) Now, I'm seeing things. Whoa.

Jan Mabry: I know I started looking around. I'm cleaning ... it's so clean (laughs).

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: (Laughs) And found gifts for people fifteen years ago with their names on them and never gave it to them.

Jan Mabry: I know.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: I am working from sunup to sundown. But I tell you one thing. Physical distancing is so important. And I say physical. Not social, because of the mental health connotations of that. But if you can get out, if there's any way you can get any exercise, depending on your physical condition, I would say, keeping physical distancing -- go do something outdoors where there aren't many people and try to enjoy the nature that we have, the beautiful topography and air around here in the Bay Area.

Jan Mabry: And I'm not going to lie on some level, I was kind of tired. You know? (laughs).

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Who isn't?

Jan Mabry: We're so nonstop. You know, every minute... I have to catch myself, sometimes. I'm like, 'uhh.. I got time... uhh... I'll call. My uncle will be on the phone and he's going on for another hour... OK. (laughs) ... nothing else to do.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Yeah. Listen, my my little granddaughter, there's a shelter in place in Illinois and for the very first time, she writes me a letter, right?

Jan Mabry: ... Awww

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Yea...You know what I mean? Really. And for the first time, I write her letter and sent her some pictures of when she was a baby (smiles). So she writes me back. 'Thank you BB (laughs).

Jan Mabry: Some good is gonna come out of this. Some good. I know it's tough.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: It's tough.

Jan Mabry: Listen, I know you have to go ...I so appreciate you talking with us. you have spoken for me for so long and you continue to do so.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Oh, yeah. We'll do this again and thank you for getting the word out. And everyone, just stay healthy and please follow the directives of our health care professionals. We will get through this. It's tough. It could get tougher we're hearing... but still -- and still, we rise.

Jan Mabry: I'll make sure that all your contacts are on our website... and we will meet again.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Thank you so much. Good seeing you ... good seeing you!

Jan Mabry: Good seeing you, too!

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Bye bye.

Jan Mabry: Bye bye.

Once again, Rep. Lee says that constituents who need immediate help can call her district office directly at (510) 763-0370. Also, visit her website -- -- for a list of links to important federal, state and local resources. writer, producer Jan Mabry is also executive producer Bay Sunday, Black Renaissance and host of Black Renaissance. She lives in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter @janmabr.


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