Viewpoint: Hoosiers are stepping up in this pandemic, and so should our elected officials

By Mary Beth DiGann and The Rev. James Williams | South Bend Tribune
May 12, 2020

No matter our race, religion or zip code — Hoosiers care deeply about our families. During this crisis, we’ve seen nurse’s aides, grocery store clerks and sanitation workers step up and keep us safe. Now, it’s time our elected officials do their part to protect and care for us.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has said four preconditions need to be in place before relaxing safety measures: a reduction in coronavirus cases for 14 days, adequate hospital capacity, widespread testing and robust contact tracing so people who might have been exposed can get tested.

Right now, the only measure Indiana meets is hospital capacity, and that could change quickly.

More than a thousand Hoosiers have already lost their lives to COVID-19, and many more are sick. The precautions we have all taken have prevented an even greater toll. But this is a precarious moment. Relaxed safety measures will undoubtedly result in an uptick of illness, hospitalization and deaths.

People of color have been particularly hard hit. African-Americans make up only 13% of the St. Joseph County population, but 45% percent of the deaths. Hispanics are getting sick five times faster than whites. These communities have long struggled with access to care and underlying health conditions. Who benefits by Gov. Eric Holcomb’s decision to break ranks with all the surrounding states and send us back to work, without his own preconditions yet in place?

The Governor’s Economic Relief and Recovery Task Force includes bankers and business leaders, but no labor representatives and no people of color. In his decision to relax safety measures, profits for business owners seem more important than the health of working Hoosiers and their families.

A midrash on the story of the tower of Babel in the Hebrew Scripture recalls that as the tower was being built, workers would repeatedly fall off the scaffolding to their death. The managers and bosses laughed and scoffed. But when a brick would fall and crumble, they bemoaned the lost revenue. For this reason, it is said, God prevented the tower from being completed. Today, too, we insist that our families and neighbors have worth and value. We are not expendable.

How our leaders act in this crisis speaks volumes about who cares for us.

As faith and organizational leaders in St. Joseph County, we pledge to protect the health and lives of our people. We will not be holding normal in-person services and gatherings until the governor’s preconditions are met. South Bend Pastor Keith Witherspoon said last week, “My main focus is keeping everybody safe.” If the church has to wait “until the science says it’s okay for us to convene, then we’ll just keep doing that.” The governor should heed this example.

We applaud St. Joseph County’s public health officials, working to keep us safe, and Mayor James Mueller, who broke ranks with the governor to follow public health recommendations. While admittedly in a politically difficult spot, we are disappointed with County Commission President Andy Kostielney, and urge him, too, to follow science and public health benchmarks to help keep our families safe.

At Faith in Indiana, we are joining together, like we’ve done in the past, to keep pressing to make sure that those who represent us:

  • Expand testing in St. Joseph County at least two- to threefold, with tests for everyone, not just for those exhibiting symptoms. Essential workers need access to repeated tests. We need full-day testing sites in black and immigrant communities hardest hit by COVID-19.
  • Hire a large team of contact tracers from the communities they will serve, instead of the out-of-state firm Holcomb is paying. Equip these trusted messengers with support services to connect people to shelter, food, and medicine when they test positive.
  • Provide paid sick time and health care for essential workers who get sick, so they are secure and cared for and don’t infect others in the workforce.

We urge our health department, commissioners and mayors to take these steps to lead the state in building a caring and pandemic resilient community. We will also continue to press Holcomb, who could use his executive authority to take all these steps today, if he chose.

Hoosiers are stepping up to care for one another in this pandemic. Shouldn’t our elected officials do the same?


Mary Beth DiGann is clerk of fellowship, outreach and study with South Bend Friends Meeting. The Rev. James Williams is pastor at Abundant Faith Family Ministry. They are members of Faith in Indiana, a network of congregations and community organizations, as are Rabbi Michael Friedland at Sinai Synagogue, Kathy Schuth, executive director at Near Northwest Neighborhood and Sister Veronique Wiedower of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who also contributed to this Viewpoint.

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