Lessons Learned: From Katrina to COVID-19: We Cannot Afford Another Replay of Hurricane Katrina

Share Button

By Kristen Burras

What world do we want on the other side of COVID-19? We cannot afford a Katrina replay.

There are policymakers who will balk at the thought of redistributive, race conscious policies for historically marginalized groups. 

It is critical to recognize, like historian Robin D. G. Kelley, that history shows how more than two centuries of U.S. policy facilitated accumulation among White property owners while further impoverishing African Americans. Thus federal assistance to Black people in any form is not a gift but a down payment for centuries of unpaid labor, violence, and exploitation. 

Rethink, a racial justice youth group in New Orleans, issued a zine on school privatization in 2018. “Privatization killed our community schools,” writes organizer Whitney Alexis. 

The virus is not the only thing killing African Americans in New Orleans—or Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, and undocumented communities nationwide. White accumulation at the expense of people of color is shaping policy around COVID-19.  

Drawing on post-Katrina experience, dialogue with community groups, and COVID-19 policy statements of equity-oriented organizations, I suggest the policies below, which include immediate interventions related to the pandemic as well as far-reaching, visionary responses to systemic inequities. 

How government officials handle COVID-19—who has a say in policies to rebuild communities—is a question of democracy.

Far-reaching transformations will be critical with immediate interventions noted secondarily:

HEALTH

Paid sick leave and healthcare should be universal, with access to healthy food via subsidized neighborhood gardens, local food co-ops, and minority-owned grocery stores.

Data on testing, disease, and death, disaggregated by race and economic status, must be publicly available for all states. Based on such data, resources should flow to organizations rooted in affected communities, where preventive and culturally sensitive education, testing, and healthcare are available free-of-charge in multiple languages.

EDUCATION

Neighborhood public schools in urban Black and Latino communities must be reopened and/or rebuilt, more-than-adequately resourced by the state, staffed with experienced teachers indigenous to the community, and overseen by locally elected boards responsive to communities.

During school closures, public and charter schools should be required to report to local and state school boards, and charter authorizers, what each school is doing to support learning. The public should have access to digitally archived lessons for auditing purposes as well as information on student access to digital technologies.

HOUSING

Housing as a right should be accessible and affordable. 

A moratorium on eviction proceedings and utility shut offs should be imposed. Rent should be suspended or covered via timely cash payments to low- and moderate-income families to curtail real estate speculation and gentrification in vulnerable neighborhoods.

LABOR

Minimum wage should be raised to a living wage. Beyond this, the provision of a universal basic income and cooperative economic arrangements that leave everyone whole would be ideal.

The federal government should designate a substantial portion of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds (and future funds related to economic stability) for minority-owned businesses and non-profits that offer essential services and employment in communities of color. Federal support for the expansion of non-profits—run by community members—could be the basis of a COVID-19 job corp.

DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE

Government master planning for COVID-19 recovery must include input and decision-making power by disproportionately affected communities, not solely developers, banks, business councils, corporations, lobbyists, and other powerful entities. Governors’ commissions should reflect a full cross section of affected communities.