'Perfect storm for when COVID hits': Neglected Black communities in Alabama see coronavirus surge

The virus "brought a lot to the surface that was hidden," one resident said. "You really seeing a lot of what the minority and Black people have to endure."

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By Ellison Barber and Tim Stelloh

LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. — The area known as Alabama's Black Belt has been hit hard by the coronavirus.

The mostly rural region, which includes more than a dozen counties and is famous for pivotal civil rights-era events like the march from Selma and the Montgomery bus boycott, has some of the highest infection rates in the state.

It also has high unemployment, low income levels — several counties have poverty rates north of 30 percent, according to a 2019 University of Alabama analysis — and limited access to grocery stores, sewage service and health care.

Some hard-hit areas, like Lowndes County, outside Montgomery, the state capital, don't have a single intensive care bed, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

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To Felecia Lucky, president of the Black Belt Community Foundation, the virus has only magnified the region's long-simmering problems.

"When you look at our communities that are predominantly African American, with the lack of access to health care, pre-existing conditions — it's almost all the ingredients for a perfect storm for when COVID hits," she said.

According to an NBC News tally, the state had recorded more than 26,000 cases and 774 deaths as of Tuesday. A stay-at-home order expired April 30, and Gov. Kay Ivey allowed all businesses, including those that require close contact, like barbershops and massage therapists, to reopen with social distancing rules in place.

But data provided Monday by the state's Public Health Department shows that a quarter of the state's confirmed cases have come in the last two weeks, according to The Associated Press. The state documented more cases in a single day — 1,000 — than any other since the pandemic began, as well as more hospitalizations in that period, the AP reported.

Members of the Black Belt Community Foundation process mask donations in their office in Selma, Ala.NBC News

In response, a spokeswoman for Ivey said the governor urged "personal responsibility," the AP reported.

Cases have spiked in some Black Belt counties. In Bullock County, with its slim population of just over 10,000, 305 people — 3 percent of residents — have tested positive for the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University. Eight of them have died. Over the weekend, the county recorded one if its largest single-day increases in new cases since last month.

In Lowndes County, where there are also about 10,000 people, 393 people — 4 percent — have tested positive. Fourteen have died.

In the little Lowndes County town of Fort Deposit, the Rev. Dale Braxton of Snow Hill Christian Church said it seems like he's having funerals every week. In the last 10 days, Braxton said, he's buried two members of his church, as well as a neighbor.

"That hit us pretty heavy," he said. "I'm asking God every day to give me the right words to say to my congregation and to those that I'm in contact with."

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Perman Hardy, a Lowndes County resident, said the virus was highlighting how people in the region can feel forgotten.

"This coronavirus has brought a lot to the surface that was hidden," he said. "You really seeing a lot of what the minority and Black people have to endure and what they are still enduring."

He added, "If you have a state like Alabama, cases steady going up, what are you going to do in the rural part of Alabama?"

Ellison Barber reported from Alabama, and Tim Stelloh from California.