Texans throughout the state have been impacted by the coronavirus epidemic, from health care workers to laid-off employees to home-schooled students. The state has seen more than 14,000 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 300 deaths.

To gain insight into plight of Texans, the Defender conducted a Q&A with the state’s two African American state senators, Borris Miles of Houston and Royce West of Dallas.

Defender: How is the coronavirus impacting the state of Texas, particularly African Americans?

Miles: The coronavirus has come down on the African American community like a sledgehammer. African Americans are being killed by this disease more than any other race because the African American community suffers from more underlying conditions like hypertension, diabetes, cardiac disease and asthma. COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the historical disparity of healthcare in the African American community, the socioeconomic barriers that exist and the fact that the African American community has the highest number of uninsured.

I am working non-stop to bring the necessary resources to our community to address the problems not only caused by the pandemic but those that will still exist when we get through this. The healthcare disparity in the African American community will not end just because COVID-19 does. This fight will be ongoing. Too many have lost their jobs or been furloughed. African American small businesses are suffering, and we will lose some of our mom-and-pop, generational businesses, and the ones that survive will struggle to stay open. 

West: It is difficult to see an aspect of everyday life for Texans that has not been impacted by the novel coronavirus. When you take a look just at how we have been asked to limit how we come and go, nearly everyone has been impacted, including African Americans.

Two things immediately come to mind when we begin talking about COVID-19. They are the number of cases statewide, my home county Dallas, included. Dallas County has the highest number of coronavirus cases in North Texas and is second only to Harris County statewide. And as of April 13, cases of the virus have been reported in 178 of Texas’ 254 counties.

Then of course when you take a look at the number of cases, the greatest cause of concern for us all has to be with the loss of lives. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, about 11.2% of coronavirus patients are African American, which is roughly consistent with the percentage of Black Texans.

Defender: What resources are available through state government for people to access during the crisis?

Miles: The state has expanded unemployment benefits to include those not normally eligible for unemployment benefits like the self-employed and others affected by the pandemic. Although the phone lines are busy right now, the Workforce Commission is now working seven days a week, and I even volunteered some of my staff to help the effort. The state has implemented emergency SNAP benefits so that recipients will receive extra money on their Lone Star Card for April and May.

West: The second coronavirus-affected area would be job loss and unemployment benefits. As many businesses have been forced to shut down and lay off workers, the impact on Texans, including African Americans, has been devastating. Small businesses as defined by federal law can have hundreds of employees, but when we think about small businesses, we picture businesses like restaurants and barbers and beauticians. Then there are the retail outlets such as department and clothing stores that have been impacted.

Needless to say, Black people are employed by all of the above and have found themselves among those out of work. To say the Texas Workforce Commission has been overwhelmed is an understatement. In just a single day over the last few weeks, TWC reported receiving some 1.7 million calls. I’d dare to say that no state agency is prepared for that type onslaught. But they are aware of the problem and are taking steps to upgrade TWC’s technology as well has expand its own workforce.