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How Black immigrant Mainers are fighting COVID-19

Despite low rates of COVID-19 infections, Maine has the largest racial disparity of infection rates in the country. Special Correspondent Kira Kay reports that Black immigrant Mainers have been disproportionately affected and that state aid needed to fight the virus has been slow to reach them. The story is part of our ongoing series, “Chasing The Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America.”

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The state of Maine has one of the lowest infection rates of COVID-19 in the country. But it also has the highest racial disparity when it comes to the impacts on Black Mainers.

    Particularly vulnerable are Maine's Black immigrants, who support the 'Pine Tree' state's economy but say they have been slow to receive much needed state funding to combat the coronavirus.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Kira Kay reports on how the pandemic is hitting these mostly African immigrants… and what some of them are trying to do about it.

    This story is part of our ongoing series "Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America."

  • Kira Kay:

    Music is once again filling the Bethel Church on the outskirts of Portland, Maine. It had been closed to worshippers for 3 months because of COVID-19, but has now reopened its doors – carefully. Everyone's temperature is taken on arrival and masks are mandatory. Only 50 worshippers are allowed in at a time.

  • Pastor:

    The whole world has been completely shut down by the pandemic. And we also pray for those who have passed away because of this.

  • Kira Kay:

    Congregant Claire Uwimbabazi tells me she's been worried people might be sick or that she herself could be infected and pass it on. But she feels joy in her heart to be back.

    Bethel's congregation includes many political and humanitarian refugees from Central Africa. But in Maine, they are facing a new danger: very high COVID-19 infection rates.

    Claude Rwaganje is a congregant at Bethel and a local city councilman.

  • Claude Rwaganje:

    I know many families that everybody in the house, every single household member got COVID. So it's not a story that we hear from far away. We lived it.

  • Kira Kay:

    COVID-19 rates in Maine are low: less than half a percent of its population- one fifth the national average. Still, the state has remained vigilant as it reopens, and even welcomes a limited number of summer tourists.

    But when you look at Maine's Black community, it's a starkly different reality.

    Maine has the largest racial disparity of COVID-19 infection rates in the country. While Black Mainers are 1.4 percent of the population, they make up at least 22 percent of the positive cases. This means 1 in 20 have had COVID.

    And while Maine doesn't break out how many are immigrants, they make up almost half of the Black demographic- the largest proportion in the country.

    These immigrants are all informally referred to as "new Mainers".

  • Fowsia Musse:

    Initially in 2001, the largest influx of new Mainers were from Somalia: Muslim, Black, very visible Islamic attire like myself, majority were women and children.

  • Kira Kay:

    Fowsia Musse is an outreach worker in Lewiston, a major resettlement city for refugees.

  • Fowsia Musse:

    Rumor has it that one family came, liked it because Maine is small, very family oriented. And in the last five years, we're seeing Central and West African. So today in the Lewiston School Department, we have 35 languages spoken.

  • Kira Kay:

    Musse feels her community still faces racism.

  • Fowsia Musse:

    It used to be very explicit: "go home… don't, why are you here? You're taking away our jobs." It's not as explicit as it used to be, but there is a lot of systematic, you know, implicit biases towards immigrants.

  • Kira Kay:

    New Mainers play a major role in Maine's economy, primarily in manufacturing and other essential jobs. Their impact can be seen in places like the American Roots factory, where 80 percent of the workforce is immigrant. It's a project of husband and wife team Ben and Whitney Waxman to make clothing in America.

  • Whitney Waxman:

    We did not know who was going to walk through our doors when we started this. And it just so happened that it was folks from Iraq, from Angola, from Congo.

  • Kira Kay:

    Maria Lutina was an early recruit after she arrived from Angola, and is now a head stitcher.

  • Maria Lutina:

    When I meet Whitney and Ben they bring me to school, they start to teach me. When I finish my training, I meet my team, they were Arabic people, and then we start to share ideas.

  • Claude Rwaganje:

    I think Maine needs us. This is an aging state and they are getting migrants who are very young, who actually will take over the workforce.

  • Kira Kay:

    But despite this optimism, Black new Mainers still suffer a poverty rate triple that of other Mainers, which puts them at the front line of the pandemic.

  • Fowsia Musse:

    The one, number one problem is housing. You have families with ten, eleven children and so there's no proper quarantine space. And so it becomes automatically, one family, it will turn into a statistic of fifteen. You have people who are in a very congested neighborhood. Everybody is touching and cross-contaminating with one hallway and one door.

  • Claude Rwaganje:

    Even those who were afraid of going to work, because of COVID, stayed at home for a week or two. When they didn't see a paycheck, they had to go back.

  • Kira Kay:

    Claude Rwaganje's own family was not immune.

  • Chantal Mukinanyana:

    He got hit hard.

  • Kira Kay:

    In late June, COVID-19 swept through the household of his niece, Chantal Mukinanyana, her husband, Jean Paul, and their two-year-old son.

    Jean Paul is a healthcare worker for adults with mental disabilities. He asked to stay home because Chantal was about to give birth to their second child.

  • Chantal Mukinanyana:

    They was like 'No, there's other people who's working. You're just gonna have to protect yourself.' So we had to pretty much suck it up so we can survive.

  • Kira Kay:

    Chantal delivered baby Cheryl by C-section just as Jean Paul tested positive, infected by one of his clients. He had to go quarantine away from his family.

  • Chantal Mukinanyana:

    But it was already too late, we all got the virus.

  • Kira Kay:

    Chantal was fighting a fever, while fearing for her newborn.

  • Chantal Mukinanyana:

    I was told by the doctor when she tested positive, that I need to 24 hours watch her breathing, because if it kicks in her small lungs, she's gonna stop breathing. But she fight it! I have a two-month old today that survived COVID. It's crazy.

  • Kira Kay:

    The family is now on the mend and Jean Paul is back at work.

    The pandemic also hit the American Roots factory hard, starting with a drop in orders that would lay off 80 percent of their staff. The Waxmans called an emergency meeting to see if workers were willing to shift to making PPE.

  • Ben Waxman:

    Every single hand went up. And within 14 days, we had brought everybody back and had shipped the first ten thousand face shields to Boston.

  • Kira Kay:

    They began cranking out 7,000 masks a day, using the fabric once meant for t-shirts. They also instituted safety measures including sanitizers, hand washing stations, and socially distancing the workers.

  • Whitney Waxman:

    We had a crew come in and hang all of this plastic sheeting throughout the factory. And what this allows is for us to use this space, and still have up to 60 people within this factory working.

  • Kira Kay:

    But despite these measures, the virus still caught up to them.

  • Ben Waxman:

    The phone rang to Whitney and she came and grabbed me and said, "we've got a positive case." On Saturday, July 11th, we had our second positive case. On Sunday, July 12th, we had our third.

  • Whitney Waxman:

    So we had 11 positive cases that immediately went into quarantine and we had 10 additional people who went into quarantine due to contact with the positive cases.

  • Kira Kay:

    With rapid testing help from the state, the remaining 93 employees stayed healthy and, after a shut down for cleaning, the factory has reopened. All of the infected workers have returned to making PPE.

  • Ben Waxman:

    150 in here, these are standard…

  • Kira Kay:

    City Councilman Claude Rwaganje distributes American Roots masks to local businesses and his own church. He says his community's early battle against COVID-19 was something they had to fight mostly alone, as state funding was first funneled through non-immigrant umbrella groups.

  • Claude Rwaganje:

    They gave money to social services agencies. And that really made us unhappy, because we said this is actually a racial and lack of trust issue. What we wanted is recognition that we know better the community that we serve, more than anybody else. So we have the culture. We have the language. It came after maybe 15 weeks for us actually asking these things.

  • Kira Kay:

    Maine health officials say they chose social services agencies "…as the fastest avenue to get funding out the door and into affected communities." But in mid July, acknowledged concerns about "…adequacy and inclusiveness…"

    On July 30, Governor Janet Mills announced $1 million in new funding, specifically for community-led organizations, to "…help reduce the disproportionately large racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 in Maine."

    In Lewiston, local groups didn't wait for help from the state and created their own task force early on to serve their community, including handing out masks to local businesses to share with customers.

    And organizing for a one-day, walk-in testing clinic run by a health center in the heart of the city's immigrant neighborhood. On a sweltering day in late July, 64 people came to get tested, including Abdirabi and his 3-year-old son. They also got precious hand sanitizer and masks.

  • Abdirabi Said:

    I have seen it while I was passing here. I want to know my health. If they told me, "you are not positive," it's good. I will be happy.

  • Kira Kay:

    Task force co-leader Abdulkerim Said says they are making up for lost time.

  • Abdulkerim Said:

    Sometime in June, when a lot of people are sick in the community, a lot of people are hospitalized, people were ready to be tested at that time. But the state was not ready to bring the site on for testing. So we missed that opportunity. And we have to convince again, explain, educate the community about the testing.

  • Kira Kay:

    The results from the clinic brought much-needed good news to the Lewiston community: zero positive tests. But statewide, Black Mainers still have an infection rate 11 times higher than all other Mainers. Schools are reopening, but Said hopes that with state funding finally expected in coming weeks, they will be ready.

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