More than 3,000. More than 12,000. More than 700,000. More than 4.55 million. These numbers have been growing like an eternally ticking clock except instead of marking the passage of time, they mark each life that was lost to COVID-19 in St. Louis, in Missouri, in the United States and worldwide. The virus does not discriminate, but our social structure inherently reinforces health inequities in cases and deaths. In St. Louis, the death rate per 100,000 people for African Americans is 233.5 compared to 127.1 for Caucasians and 79.2 in Asians . The city of St. Louis and its many community leaders and organizations are continuing to address these disparities while healthcare frontline workers fight the invisible enemy.
The Metro STL snakes throughout Missouri across the Mississippi River into East Illinois with more than thirty-six million passenger boardings every year . Metro drivers have been continuing to transport transit riders to work and school. During the summer of 2021, when vaccines were being offered for free at The Dome at America’s Center, flyers with registration instructions were posted on every bus and train. Due to the increased safety measures the Metro Transit have put in place to protect riders and drivers, the MetroLink and MetroBuses have continued operating.
I have yet to meet Maureen Williams, Senior Consumer Engagement Planner at the Metro STL, in person. From our telephone conversations over the past year, however, I know that she has a deeply passionate and lively spirit that brings levity to the disheartening situation that is the pandemic. Maureen has frequently taken to the streets to hand out masks, most of which she received as donations from the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis . She visits partner locations such as the St. Louis Area Agency on Aging, local high schools and North St. Louis. For her, it is a personal mission. Despite the provision of masks at every station for Metro staff, two people have passed away from COVID-19. Although partnerships with the East Side Health District and St. Clair County have fully vaccinated more than 800 team members, both of the members who passed away were unable to get vaccinated because of preexisting health issues . She described to me the whirl of emotions that they were experiencing, but there was no pause in her work. She continues to engage with partner organizations and passengers who face a disproportionate risk of contracting the infection.
While the Metro St. Louis never ceased to stop its operations, many local St. Louis businesses were close to shutting down due to the massive economic toll that business owners faced. The trends in unemployment rate changes for African Americans versus the aggregate community in Missouri mirrors that of the greater United States. African Americans face a higher rate of unemployment and were disproportionately affected by the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. From 2019 to 2020 in Missouri, the unemployment rate for African Americans increased 10.8% whereas the total unemployment rate increased 5.4% . These hardships caused secondary effects wherein African American and Hispanic people were nearly 1.5 times more likely to struggle to put food on their tables than White survey participants . St. Louis County Executive Sam Page made a public announcement underscoring the pandemic’s detective work in exposing the “great disparities in our county in almost every facet of life, including access to health care, healthy food options and job opportunity” . County officials were allocated $29.7 million in federal rent assistance to combat inequities in housing stability .
Abdul-Kaba Abdullah had not anticipated having to deal with such a large crisis when he was appointed as the Executive Director at Park Central Development. He is young but experienced, accomplished and well-spoken. He admits that he had never encountered something so disruptive and far-reaching, but with his previous experience living through Ferguson in 2014 and managing operations with the non-profit Better Family Life, he was able to mobilize his team to remote work and emergency crisis management within a week. The first agenda item was to send the entire team to the streets, business districts and communities to assess their needs. The immediate needs were for information about the virus and to stock the shelves with food. From there, Abdullah and staff member Linda Nguyen, Coordinator of Neighborhood Initiatives and Engagement, worked with Washington University in St. Louis to raise $180,000 to purchase a total of 9,370 meals for frontline workers . Abdullah’s goal is to share their business outreach model with communities North of Delmar to foster self-sustaining community vibrancy.
When revenue dried up in the business district and the government was stalled in delivering stimulus checks, businesses needed cash to stay afloat. Park Central Development quickly set up a COVID-19 Small Business Stimulus Grant and provided resources to eighty-nine businesses . By supporting the business ecosystem, Abdullah said that there would be food to feed the community and reach individuals. This work relied on collaboration. Recognizing the tremendous support that WashU offered through partnership with the St. Louis Food Angels, he values the instrumental response to COVID-19 in the immediate footprint that Park Central Development influences in the promotion of strong equitable neighborhoods. Abdullah proudly shared with me that no businesses had to close down as a result of COVID-19 in the neighborhoods that they served. As business recovers, Park Central Development has been able to pull back and allow communities to continue their work as they pivot to helping individual homeowners with mortgages, rent and expenses.
This past year has been marred with loss, both personal and communal. Not only were jobs lost, food security shaken and housing forfeited, there are unfillable spaces where there used to be people. Left behind are those who continue to hope and fight for equity and recognition of their lost loved ones. I recently attended the Requiem of Light, a memorial concert for the more than 3,000 lives that were lost to COVID-19 in St. Louis. This memorial was the culmination of a year’s worth of planning spearheaded by Professor of Italian and Co-Founder of the Medical Humanities minor at WashU, Rebecca Messbarger. The event featured an impressive list of speakers including religious leaders, Angela Kender the founder of the Missouri COVID Memorial Project and healthcare workers as well as the angelic voices of the Requiem of Light Choir Members conducted by Dr. Philip A. Woodmore. As music filled The Sheldon Concert Hall, I sensed the heaviness of this past year’s isolated suffering and mourning lift just enough for hope to rise.
The tireless work of Williams, Abdullah and so many others have revitalized our communities and created lasting structures to honor those who have been lost and those who will continue to remember. To all those who dedicate themselves to keeping our communities safe and ever thriving, thank you.
Edited by: Haleigh Pine