Speaking Truth to COVID / Stacey Abrams

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“We are not ready to put at risk the lives of those who are going to be on the front lines. And let’s be clear, we’re talking about populations that are likely to be people of color… and likely to be women. These are low-wage workers who do not have the luxury of refusing to return to work. If they refuse the call of their employers, because we live in a right-to-work state, they are subject to termination. This means that people are literally being told to either come back to work, or risk the lives of your families.” – Stacey Abrams

In today’s episode, co-hosts Dr. Celine Gounder and Ron Klain speak with Stacey Abrams, a national leader in voting rights and former Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia, about Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to re-open much of the state amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. They discuss how some populations, such as low-wage workers and people of color, will bear the brunt of this decision, as many are forced to choose between their jobs and the safety of their loved ones. They also discuss what voter suppression is how citizens can still exercise their right to vote in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. They talk about how the pandemic could affect the 2020 census. Finally, they discuss how the pandemic has exposed inequities in the U.S., and what can be done to close the gaps that remain in order to come out of this pandemic stronger than ever as a country.

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Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder.

Ron Klain: And I’m Ron Klain.

Celine Gounder: And this is “Epidemic.”

Today is Saturday, April 25th.

Ron Klain: On April 20th, the Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, made an announcement that shocked a lot of people.

Brian Kemp: “Today we are announcing plans to incrementally and safely reopen sectors of our economy.”

Ron Klain: Georgia would become the first state to reverse widespread business closures, and it would do it quickly.

Brian Kemp: “We will allow gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians, their respective schools and massage therapist to reopen their doors this Friday, April the 24th.”

Ron Klain: Kemp’s decision violated the White House’s own aggressive reopening policies, and went so far, that even Donald Trump criticized his political ally, Brian Kemp, for this action.

Celine Gounder: But there’s another reason we’re talking about Governor Kemp, voting rights. Brian Kemp’s election in 2018 was marred by allegations of voter suppression. More than 300,000 voters were wrongfully purged from the registry and could not cast a ballot, a move that disproportionately impacted African Americans in that election.

Ron Klain: Well, there’s no better person to talk about Kemp’s decision, this spread of COVID among our communities of color, and a variety of other important issues related to the epidemic than our guest today, on this special edition of the “Epidemic” podcast, Stacey Abrams.

Stacey is a national leader in voting rights and fighting voter suppression. In 2018, she was the Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia, and if the election had been fairer, she would probably be the one making these decisions now, not Brian Kemp. I’ve known Stacy for a long time, and I will confidently predict on this podcast that we’re joined today by a future President of the United States,

Stacey Abrams, thank you so much for joining us for the “Epidemic” podcast.

Stacey Abrams: Thank you so much, and thank you for such a generous introduction,

Celine Gounder: Stacey, it’s really an honor to have you join us today. Um, I really just want to start by checking in with you. How are you doing right now and how is COVID affecting you and your family?

Stacey Abrams:  Well, I appreciate you asking. I’m very privileged that my immediate family is all healthy and secure. Unfortunately though, I’ve got cousins and extended family who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, and so we remain in prayer and trying to get support and resources to them, which, depending on where they’re living, can be a very difficult endeavor.

Ron Klain: Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that Stacey, and I know everyone’s wishing the best for your family and for everyone who’s been impacted by this disease. Before we get to the big national issues involved with COVID, I want to talk about the state of Georgia. If we’d had a fair election in Georgia in 2018, you would be that state’s governor right now. But the man who is governor, Brian Kemp, has announced a radical plan to reopen tattoo parlors, massage therapists, restaurants, immediately thereafter, outstripping even President Trump’s aggressive plan for reopening. So if you were governor of Georgia right now, what would you be doing differently?

Stacey Abrams: One, we would be continuing, not only being closed, but we would be engaged in aggressive testing, tracing, and treatment.

Georgia has the 14th highest infection rate and the seventh lowest testing rate. We’ve had 21,000, roughly, positive cases, and that’s just so the people who could get tested, and over 800 Georgians have lost their lives. What is being proposed, this notion of reopening locations, the places he’s picked are the places where the virus can most easily be spread.

This is an irresponsible decision that, not only would I not have made, but as a citizen, I am actively agitating against. I want us to remember as citizens that our ability to influence government is more than simply being elected to office, although I do think that’s a critical piece. It’s also critical that we speak up and we not hold our tongue, simply because someone seems to have more power, when our lives are at risk, when we are told that the economy is more important than the people. Then we’ve made very wrongheaded choices, and I, I’m just, I think his decision has been deeply incompetent, and my approach would have been to follow CDC guidelines, to do the work of making sure we had resources, and to recognize the structural inequities that are endemic to the state of Georgia and across the South.

Ron Klain: Well, Stacey, let’s talk for one more second about this, ‘cause I want to get your views on, who do you think will be the people who suffer as a result of this decision ,and why shouldn’t the governor allow each city to make the decisions for himself? We’ve seen Mayor Bottoms on television, saying she would obviously do something very different if this were her call.

Who’s going to bear the brunt of this, and why shouldn’t she have the power to put an end to this idea?

Stacey Abrams: Well, first of all, we shouldn’t have to abdicate state power or federal power because of the incompetence of the leadership. The leaders should do their jobs. The governor’s job is to lead the state of Georgia and not put it on separate mayors and county commissioners to make the decision because we operate as a state.

What we have to recognize is that we have a state government for a reason. We have a federal government for a reason. Because as the stakes get higher, we aggregate both power and responsibility, as well as the ability to be responsive, in the highest levels of government.

Brian Kemp should not reopen the state because we are not ready to do business. We are not ready to put at risk the lives of those who are going to be on the front lines. And let’s be clear, we’re talking about populations that are likely to be people of color, likely to be black and brown in Georgia, Black and Latino, and likely to be women.

These are low wage workers who do not have the luxury of refusing to return to work. If they refuse the call of their employers, because we live in a right to work state, they are subject to termination. This means that people are literally being told to either come back to work, or risk the lives of your families, which is why it’s so critical that the federal action that is being taken today on the Paycheck Protection Act., that’s why it exists. Because the federal government should solve the problem of small business owners who individually cannot respond to a pandemic. They require the aggregating power of government to help them solve problems they cannot solve alone.

Ron Klain: Let’s move ahead now to this year. The election is just around the corner. As you look ahead to November, Stacey, what do you think we need to do to make sure that every eligible voter can exercise their right to vote in the middle of what may still be an ongoing pandemic?

Stacey Abrams: In order to hold elections, we have to guarantee that those elections are safe and accessible. That means voting by mail. And if we imagine a hundred people crowding into a polling place, if we can get 75 of those people out of that polling place, and allow them to vote from home, we’ve created a much safer environment. And that’s why every state, which can and currently does have vote by mail capacity, has to scale that capacity, and they need resources from the federal government to do so, roughly $4 billion.

The second is that we have to have in-person, early voting as much as possible. So of the 25 people left in line, we want to get about 10 of them to start voting in early voting centers, where you won’t have to have as much staffing early, but where you can start to spread out the people who need to vote.

And then the last group, they need to be able to vote in person on election day. They tend to be disabled. They may be homeless, they have language barriers. They may be displaced by COVID-19, or they may simply have been unable to receive or return their absentee ballot in time. But if we’ve reduced the harm, and we follow the CDC guidelines, what we’ve created for 2020 is an election that every American can participate in.

We know it works because Donald Trump voted by mail. And we know it’s not subject to a great deal of voter fraud because every state in the nation uses vote by mail in some form. What we’re asking for is simply that we make certain that voters not have to choose between their health and making their voices heard, a dangerous choice that we saw Wisconsinites forced to make just two weeks ago.

Celine Gounder: Well and Stacey, to your point, um, so I’ve worked much of my career at working in global health and have seen elections take place in other countries. Uh, oftentimes it’s on a weekend, or it’s a national holiday. Why don’t we make it easier, um, whether it’s mailing everybody a ballot, or having elections on a weekend, or you know, any number of measures to just make it easier for people to engage in the process?

Stacey Abrams: Well, I, I actually, and I’m not using this as a pitch moment, but I want to say, I have a book coming out in June called, “Our Time Is Now”, and I spend the first half of the book really explaining the genesis of voter suppression and what it looks like today. We are a nation that has intentionally made voting hard, from our inception.

Most nations that are democratized and industrialized actually register all of their voters. We’re one of the few nations that requires voters to run through a bureaucratic maze to get on the rolls and stay on the rolls. We are one of the few nations that doesn’t make it easy to vote on election day

And in our country, most people who have the right to go and vote and take off time from work, do not have a guaranteed salary. And if you live in a Black community or a Brown community where you’re under-resourced, you can be aligned for two to five hours, which means you’ve lost half a days pay in order to exercise a basic right, presuming you get to exercise the right.

There is no reason that one of the oldest and most advanced democracies in the world cannot do an effective election in 2020. We have the power. We simply have to have the willingness. And unfortunately, Republicans are trying to discredit the best methodologies, which are voting by mail, making sure that people can register on the same day if they haven’t been able to process their registrations, and may be making certain that people can vote in person if they need to, without risking their lives.

This should not be a partisan issue. Elections aren’t partisan. Democracy isn’t partisan. The selections we make may choose a party. But when you break the machinery of democracy, as we’ve seen happen in the 21st century, it has broken for everyone. We can fix it. We simply have to have the will to do so.

Celine Gounder: Stacey, this podcast reaches a pretty broad audience, that has many different interests. So for people who are newcomers to this question, what is voter suppression exactly, and what does it have to do with the COVID pandemic or, for that matter, with health more generally?

Stacey Abrams:  Voter suppression is roughly three things. It’s can you access the registration and stay on the roles? Number two, can you cast a ballot? And number three, does your ballot get counted? In America, we don’t have one democracy. We have 50 different democracies. And so, in each state, how you register and stay on the rolls differs, how you access the ballot differs, and if your ballot gets counted, differs.

So if you’re in Florida, it’s hard to be registered by The League of Women Voters because they’ve criminalized the ability to register voters. If you’re in Georgia, we have this process called exact match, so if there is a bureaucratic problem typing in your name, it can keep you from being able to register to vote.

The issue with, can you cast a ballot? Since the evisceration of the voting rights act in 2013, we’ve seen 1,688 precinct shutdown .In Georgia alone, that meant that when 214 precincts shut down, between 54 and 85,000 people simply did not have the ability to cast a ballot. And then does your vote count, which I like to refer to as Florida.

That’s the issue of, do you have problems with ballots being properly processed, absentee ballots being thrown out, which happened in Georgia and Florida and Michigan. Do you get those ballots counted? Which is a challenge in Arizona, where when your ballots are mailed in, they have to arrive by a date certain, but if you live on one of the Native American reservations, you have no control over mail delivery service.Your mail could be routed through Utah or New Mexico.

And I say all of that to say this: Voter suppression is any process, whether intentional or unintentional, that impedes the ability of an eligible American to cast a ballot. If we can solve that impediment, then we are making voter access better, and if we maintain those impediments, knowing that they are not necessary to secure an election, then we are engaging in voter suppression. And unfortunately, in the 21st century, that has been largely the behavior of the Republican Party.

Celine Gounder:  And then how does that connect with COVID and, and health? You know, this, this issue of voter suppression.

Stacey Abrams: So voter suppression is a challenge in the best of times, but what happens with COVID-19 is that, when I say we’re running 51 different elections, it becomes even more exacerbated because the rules are different.

Amid COVID-19 we have to expand vote by mail options, which includes no excuse, absentee voting. In Alabama, you have absentee ballots, but you have to be either 65 years of age or older, or be disabled, or be able to prove that you have a disease that will not permit you to cast the ballot. Well, the threat that you could contract a disease is not considered an excuse.

And so in Alabama, you do not have the ability to vote by mail. We have to recognize that what COVID-19 has done is limit the ability to use even the most basic access to the right to vote. But the larger issue is why we vote. Voting is power. Its most fundamental premise is that it is the power in our country to make decisions about our leaders and about our future.

I believe in the right to vote, not because of the candidates we select, and not because of the act itself, but because of the fundamental principle that we get to decide who we will be. And in the midst of a pandemic, we are reminded every day by leaders at the state, national and local level, that if we cannot fire those who fail us, we are destined to repeat the failures that we have seen.

If we cannot have an election that is safe and secure, but that is also accessible, then we can’t respond, not only to the pandemic, but we are going to be putting ourselves at risk for the next healthcare crisis, for the next health security crisis that may face this country or this world. This is a global decision that we’re making, which is that we believe that in a democracy, we are going to demonstrate our competency for action and our effectiveness for serving our people. And in the moment of COVID-19, that can not be more critical.

Ron Klain: Stacey, I could listen to you talk about this all day, and I certainly could discuss Florida with you for a long time, but I do want to move on to another topic. 2020 is a presidential election year, of course, but it’s also the year when we conduct a census, something we do only once every 10 years. So from your perspective, what’s at stake in the 2020 Census?

Stacey Abrams: The census is not just a counting of our people. It is an understanding of who we are and what we need, so we can predict the future. We allocate $1.5 trillion across our 50 States and our territories and the district of Columbia.

Those dollars pay for health care. They pay for hospital beds, roads and bridges, education, Snap Benefits, Pell Grants. If you think about it as a national need, the census helps determine who pays for it and who receives the services. So it’s an allocation of financial power.

It’s also an allocation of political power. Based on the, the count of the states, we reapportion. or reshuffle, the 435 congressional leaders. And so states that have grown larger get more, and states that have grown smaller, they lose power. And that matters. You have one fewer voice or a few fewer voices arguing for you in Congress. And it’s also how we determine the composition of our political districts, congressional districts, state legislative districts, but also city council, county commission, and school board districts.

And the challenge of the census is that, while it only occurs every 10 years, its aftermath stays with us for a decade. So if you’ve enjoyed the last 10 years of political leadership, congratulations. If you found it to be problematic, the census is why. Because we know that the hardest to count populations, people of color, immigrants, young children, rural communities. Those communities that are being hardest hit by COVID- 19 and that face structural inequities every cycle, they face them because almost every single cycle they’re under counted. And unfortunately, the Trump Administration deeply underfunded the census, put in place a citizenship question, that while push off of the questionnaire, has helped depress response to the census. Because their intention as, stated by one of their researchers, was to make the census reflect a whiter, more Republican composition of our country. And that’s not the story of America. We are a diverse nation with diverse needs. And the census tells us what we need and where.

Ron Klain: Well, and then part of the census, of course, is going door to door to secure the responses that aren’t gotten through the mail and online.

What are your concerns about our reliance on that in the middle of a pandemic?

Stacey Abrams: So one important decision that’s been made, or that’s being proposed, is that we shift the deadline for the 2020 Census, from August 14th to October 31st. That is a necessary change, I think, in part because, we know that 6.2 million rural communities have not received any information about the census because it was supposed to be delivered at the outset of this pandemic.

We know that we have millions of people who do not have access to the Internet, and so they can’t respond to the census, but they’re also limited. They have limited access to mail delivery services, so they can’t mail their information out. I created Fair Count because I believe that the census is one of the most important issues that we overlook. But also because I anticipated that there would be something that when amuck, and what we’ve been able to do is shift our focus from the field organizing that we planned for. Now, we’re doing more mailing, more phone calls, we’re doing the work online, but we’re also making sure that we’re texting, and we’re leveraging community leaders.

We’ve expanded our footprint, so we’re now going to be working across the South, as well as in communities around the country, because we know that the census has to be done. What we need is a concomitant investment from the federal government, recognizing that because of the limits of in-person knocking, that we have to redouble our efforts and invest in outreach that goes beyond what we had planned and responds to this moment.

Celine Gounder:  Stacey, many of the people who are protesting social distancing restrictions, for example in Michigan, seem to see this as a choice between public health and the economy, or health and liberty. Are those indeed the choices we’re being forced to make?

Stacey Abrams:  It’s a false choice. My youngest sister, there’s six of us, so I have a story for every sibling. My youngest, my youngest sister actually used to work for the CDC. Her job was to track diseases that jumped from animal hosts to human hosts, or that changed and how they were spread. And what she can tell you is that if we do not solve the fundamental question of our health, everything else is a mute issue.

But to the very specific question being raised by those who are pushing back is that we’ve faced for the last 40 years, not only a dimunition of investment in the public infrastructure, but we’ve faced a dimunition of trust in science led by those who should know better. People were pushing back because they’ve been told that they cannot trust the evidence of their eyes, and that they should not trust the scientist because their information is inconvenient.

The deepest challenge we face as a nation is restoring our faith in science and having leaders who are willing to risk anger to tell the truth. I get a little bit of pushback because I tend to be a bit direct, and I tend to be fairly blunt when asked questions, and that’s because I, you know, I’m the daughter of pastors.

I was raised to believe that people should tell the truth, especially when it’s hard. Because if people can’t trust you when it’s easy, they will never listen to you when it’s difficult. And this false choice that’s been presented by Donald Trump and others is designed to distract from their incompetency and their lies. And that means that we’re all in jeopardy, and that we can never recover, unless we are willing to be diligent and forthright and tell the truth and base our truths on science.

Celine Gounder:  Stacey, as you mentioned, you’re the daughter of two Methodist ministers. Could you explain a bit more about how your faith and your identity have informed who you are, your values, your work, and why that’s so important in this moment?

Stacey Abrams:  Well, my parents became pastors when I was 15, but I will tell you, they preached to us my whole life. And part of that was, they wanted us to understand that our faith wasn’t simply something that was internal. It had to be lived to be real, that your faith had to have action. My parents taught us that your faith is a shield to protect others, not a sword to strike them down.

And my mom and dad told us when we were really young, they said they weren’t taking us to heaven with them. If we wanted to get there, we had to do the work ourselves. I internalized it deeply. And my commitment to justice, my commitment to public service, is grounded in my faith. My faith is real when I do the work of helping others, and my faith is reinforced when I see those around me who benefit and who also, in turn, pass it on. That’s the faith I hold. And while I am Christian, I recognize and respect that faith takes different forms for other people.

But the strongest faith that we can all live is when we are willing to do more for others than we do for ourselves. I wake up every morning safe in the house that I was able to by, knowing that my parents are taken care of, that my family members can turn to one another if they need each other, and then I remember that there’s a homeless man living somewhere, sleeping on someone’s street, who doesn’t know if someone is coming for them.

My faith tells me that my responsibility is not simply to care about those I know and see, but to make certain that we have a world that cares about that man. And that’s because we were raised to believe that you don’t simply see problems, you try to fix them. And that is a renewal of spirit that helps me wake up every day and do what I can.

Ron Klain:  Stacey, I want to close this conversation with this question we asked to many of our guests, that I really can’t think of anyone better to address it than you.

We often say on this podcast that the pandemic affects everyone, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally. So how do you think this pandemic has laid bare some of the inequities we have in our country as we respond to the pandemic, and what should we be doing differently to close those gaps, and to have this country recover better and stronger than it was before we faced this crisis?

Stacey Abrams: The third organization I founded is called the Southern Economic Advancement Project. And at its core is the recognition that communities of color, that the poor, that those of us in the South, they’re communities that have long faced, not only greater vulnerabilities, but less resilience, and nothing has laid that more bare than the pandemic.

Albany, Georgia, which is down in Southwest Georgia, was at one point the fourth highest COVID infection rate in the world, and we know that 80% of those who have faced COVID-19 are people, are Black. We know that nearby, the chicken processing plant, there’ve been four deaths for people who didn’t have the option of not going to work because that job was the only job they could get down in Camilla, Georgia.

When you have a public health infrastructure that has been broken by over the past 40 years of disinvestment. When you have a broken housing infrastructure that allows people to sleep on the streets while buildings that are beautiful edifices stand empty. When you have a system that refuses to acknowledge that there are racial dimensions to healthcare inequity and to the solutions, then we cannot serve our people.

What we can do best is using this election cycle to start to write the wrongs that have existed. Start to elect people who see everyone. I get a lot of grief because I believe in identity politics, because identity politics means I see you. I understand the challenges you face, and I’m willing to invest in your support, and your opportunity.

We can fix what has been broken by saying we see it, by addressing those inequities, and by recognizing that investing in opportunity lifts us all. We are a stronger nation when the least of these is served. And more importantly, we are a stronger people when we agree to do the work, to make everyone equal in our country.

That was in our credo, and it should be our demand, and if we do it in the United States, we can signal around the world that it can be done there as well.

Ron Klain: Well Stacey, thank you so much for this conversation, for joining us on the podcast, but mostly, thank you for your leadership in this country. I think we’re grateful to hear your strong voice on these questions, and everyone looks forward to seeing your book this summer.

So thank you very much.

Stacey Abrams: Thank you, and I hope everyone stays safe, all of you and everyone listening.

Celine Gounder: Thank you, Stacey.

“Epidemic” is brought to you by Just Human Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our music is by The Blue Dot Sessions. Our interns are Sonya Bharadwa, Isabel Ricke, Claire Halverson, and Annabel Chen. If you enjoy the show, please tell a friend about it today. And if you haven’t already done so, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show.

You can learn more about this podcast, how to engage with us on social media, and how to support the podcast at epidemic.fm. That’s epidemic.fm. Just Human Productions is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. So your donations to support our podcasts are tax-deductible.

Go to epidemic.fm to make a donation. We release “Epidemic” twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays, but producing a podcast costs money. We’ve got to pay Zach, so please make a donation to help us keep this going. Check out our sister podcast, “American Diagnosis.” You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or at AmericanDiagnosis.fm. On “American Diagnosis,” we cover some of the biggest health challenges affecting the nation today. In season one, we covered youth and mental health. In season two, the opioid overdose crisis, and in season three, gun violence in America.

I’m Dr. Celine Gounder.

Ron Klain: And I’m Ron Klain.

Stacey Abrams Stacey Abrams
Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder