Even before the pandemic came to Mississippi, journalist Jerry Mitchell predicted it would devastate the state's already fraying health care infrastructure. Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, and his team have been chronicling the intersections of poverty and COVID-19 across Mississippi.
Their ongoing Pulitzer Center-supported reporting project reveals the breadth of local and national problems that have been worsened by the pandemic's strains. In a story about poultry plants, it is clear how policies around labor, immigration, and health care endangered workers and made meatpacking plants hotbeds of the coronavirus.
Another article on the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians detailed how the pandemic has exacerbated the continuing cultural genocide of Native Americans. Choctaws represent less than 18 percent of Neshoba County’s population, but account for nearly two-thirds of the county’s deaths. COVID has killed tribal members and halted traditional tribal practices.
“We're losing parts of our culture here, losing parts of who we are and how we connect with our identity as tribal members,” Mary Harrison, interim health director of the Choctaw Health Center, said in the article.
“The center's focus on how the pandemic affects impoverished rural communities in Mississippi that routinely feel forgotten and sidelined by society—and the media—was very appealing to us,” Pulitzer Center Executive Editor Marina Walker Guevara said. “We also valued the approach, combining data analysis, accountability reporting and intimate portraits to create a compelling narrative.”
Pulitzer Center Intern Abigail Gipson spoke with Mitchell about COVID-19’s effects on Mississippi’s poorest areas, and how local leaders have responded. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Abigail Gipson: Where did the idea for doing this project come from?
Jerry Mitchell: Mississippi has some of the most impoverished places in the nation, and that was one of the things that arose very early on when COVID hit. We started hearing about the outbreak in Holmes County, for example, which we had been talking about before [the pandemic] ever hit. And then one of the early hotspots was Holmes County. It was just very devastating, especially in nursing homes there. We were very fortunate to get a grant from the Pulitzer Center to be able to go out and hire data journalists, which we don't have on staff at this point, to take a deeper dive into these areas.
Of course we're very aware of Mississippi's history. For example, Mississippi has been one of the states that refused to expand Medicaid. That's meant not having hospitals you would have had because they're shut down, especially in rural places. We're talking about the impoverished places in Mississippi that have had these hospitals and now no longer have them, or have had clinics close during COVID. We saw that in Holmes County. We're still collecting some more numbers, but at least as of July, I believe, the death rate in the impoverished places was eight times higher than other places in Mississippi. That's a pretty staggering difference.
In terms of digging down to actually looking at the effects of COVID, as we have in Holmes County, we went over to Philadelphia, Mississippi, which is where the Mississippi Choctaws live, and they've had more deaths than some states. That's staggering, too. And that's another underreported story, nationally, COVID's effect on Native American populations. They, at least from what I've seen in the numbers, seem to have been affected per capita at a much worse rate than any other ethnic or racial groups.
AG: How did your COVID reporting build off of other reporting that the center has been doing?
JM: Well, these [issues] were already things we were interested in writing about. In fact, we did some stories on COVID before it seriously hit Mississippi. We were already writing, “Hey, you know, this may disproportionately affect Mississippi.” And it certainly has. We're seeing the effects of it and continue to see the effects of it. The other part of this is that, for whatever reason, some leaders keep acting like this is gonna go away sometime soon. And I keep saying, we don't have any proof this is going away anytime soon. I know the numbers in Mississippi have been relatively steady over the past few months, but they're still pretty staggering. This is not something that's just going to go away. That's why our reporting is continuing on this topic.
We have such disparity here in Mississippi between the haves and have-nots, and have-nots have long been left out. I think we're seeing the results of that now. When you don't invest in health care in Mississippi, in these impoverished places, what happens? Well now we're seeing the consequences of that. And so we wanted to document that.
AG: You mentioned Holmes County, and I think I read in one of the stories that Holmes County actually distributed masks and sanitizer to residents.
JM: Yeah. They were the first county in Mississippi to distribute masks. This is what's interesting to me. They literally went door to door and distributed masks. It's one thing to say, “Oh, we’ve got masks for everybody, everybody come down and get one.” But you’ve got some people who are shut-in, people who are disabled, maybe they don't have transportation. And so I thought Holmes County's response was incredible. They decided, “We're going to get everybody masks.” And as a result of that, cases didn't completely go away, but they went down drastically.
And so credit to them, they really, really helped turn it around.
AG: I find this very interesting. Especially that they were able to do this as one of the poorest counties in Mississippi.
JM: They are the poorest county in Mississippi, and in the nation, really. The poorest county in the poorest state in the nation. They saw the need. The county supervisor I spoke to was the one behind it, essentially. And, and he just said, “Look, we have to do this for people here. This is spreading like wildfire. We've got to put a stop to it. And as we've seen from studies, masks are really one of the best deterrents to spreading the disease. So we should be utilizing it.” As I mentioned in Holmes County, they, a lot of times, aren't able to get out there. There's no means of distributing unless you go door-to-door. So I think Holmes County deserves tremendous credit for doing that.
AG: How does this series fit into the MCIR’s mission?
JM: Well, we're about shining a light and exposing darkness. We're very much about exposing disparity and injustice, things that go on and often go unreported. Newsrooms within the past 12 years have been cut in half, and probably more, in Mississippi. And so investigative reporting has gone by the wayside. We want to fill that gap. We're providing stories to all the major newspapers in Mississippi and other outlets around the country as well. We have to know what's really happening to make informed decisions and to perhaps get the legislature to do something.
We just did a series on prisons, and the Justice Department is now investigating the prison system in Mississippi. Obviously something needs to be done with regard to health care. It's abundantly obvious, and that's one of the reasons we wanted to dive into this story. We've long known of the disparities in health care in Mississippi. And we suspected in advance of when COVID came here, how it would play out. And we have unfortunately been correct.
I think Mississippi is one of those places that most needs change. But then on the other hand, because of its size, it is most able to change, in a way. And so I'm grateful for that. I do see signs of, within the legislature, being more willing to address some of these issues.