Surviving in America's Black Belt amid pandemic and job loss

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Volunteers load boxes of fruit and produce into vehicles at a site where free food was distributed to residents of Alabama's Black Belt region in Selma, Ala., on Thursday, June 4, 2020. Relief groups are trying to provide aid during the pandemic in the mostly black, historically poor region, which has the state's highest unemployment and coronavirus infection rates. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

SELMA, Ala. – SELMA, Ala.Life can be tough even on a good day in the Black Belt, where some of the poorest people in America are, as usual, depending on each other to survive. Their struggle has become even more difficult with unemployment intensifying and coronavirus infections raging.

Both the need and the relief have been on display in the historic civil rights city of Selma, where volunteers distributed free food to scores of people, many of whom shared rides from isolated communities just to get to the school where boxes of fruit and vegetables were available.

“When the rest of the country catches a cold, a place like the Black Belt catches the flu,” said Lydia Chatmon, who works with the Selma Center for Non-Violence and helped coordinate with the Black Belt Community Foundation on last week's donations.

Stretching from Louisiana to Virginia, the Black Belt is a crescent-shaped agricultural region first known for the color of its soil and then for its mostly black population. It provided for much of the antebellum South’s cotton economy, and remains home to many descendants of slaves. With relatively little industry and a declining population, poverty remains a constant problem.

Now the virus that causes COVID-19, which is killing U.S. blacks in disproportionately large numbers, has taken hold as well.

Black Belt counties have eight of the nine worst infection rates in Alabama, where more than 21,600 have tested positive for the virus, and more than 730 have died. The area also took the hardest hit from unemployment during the economic shutdown, with eight Black Belt counties having jobless rates near or above 20%.

And now that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has allowed businesses and many entertainment venues to reopen in a bid to stimulate the economy, worrying public health officials, cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations have held steady or increased in the state.

It’s not that government isn’t helping: The food at the giveaway was donated through a federal program. And more than $4 million in pandemic assistance grants announced last week will go to agencies that serve Black Belt counties in Alabama. The money will help provide food, rent and medicine. Small-town coronavirus testing stations also have opened, so residents don’t have to travel to bigger cities to learn if they may be spreading the virus .