Coronavirus is worsening inequality Here's how you can help

Advocate with the Jesuit network: Tell Congress to Support Vulnerable Communities Amid the COVID-19 Crisis.

March 31, 2020 — Last week, Congress passed a series of COVID-19 relief bills to address pressing economic and public health concerns. However, more policy reforms are needed to protect those most impacted by this crisis. While coronavirus does not discriminate based on nationality or socioeconomic status, the groups most vulnerable to coronavirus are those on the margins — migrants and refugees, the homeless and chronically poor, people who are incarcerated or living in immigrant detention. As U.S. and Canadian governments respond to this public health crisis, we must ensure that legislative solutions take the needs of these vulnerable communities to heart.

How are Jesuit ministries coping with the spread of coronavirus? How are communities being affected?

Jesuit ministries have walked with marginalized communities for decades, providing direct assistance, pastoral accompaniment and education. The threat of coronavirus has made these services even more vital. Below are some of the ways that the Jesuit network is working to mitigate the effects of coronavirus among groups of people who are particularly vulnerable. In each section, we’ll suggest some ways you can get involved — even from home.


Language barriers, uncertain legal status, limited access to legal counsel and low wages place migrants in vulnerable positions even under normal circumstances. These vulnerabilities are only exacerbated under the current health crisis.

Overcrowding at detention centers, migrant shelters and makeshift refugee camps along the U.S.-Mexico border makes social distancing impossible. Given the lack of hygiene and medical supplies, an outbreak of coronavirus in these communities would be devastating and would have a significant impact on the broader population as well. Access to testing and treatment for all people, including undocumented immigrants, is essential to preventing further spread of the virus throughout the country.

A mother, who was sent back from the U.S. to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols. sits with her child in the Kino Border Initative dining room (Courtesy of KBI).

The Jesuits are deeply concerned by the decision of the U.S. and Canada to suspend asylum applications indefinitely, effectively closing their borders to migrants in need of international protection. Sealing off our borders will not isolate us from coronavirus, and public health crises cannot be used as a political opportunity to limit migration and asylum in the long-term. In response, we urge Congress and the federal government to:

  • Release immigrants from detention where possible
  • Prohibit ICE from enforcement activities at sensitive locations such as healthcare facilities, which would deter people from seeking testing and treatment that benefits the whole community
  • Restore due process to asylum seekers, especially once shelter-in-place orders are eased
  • Close immigration courts and suspend hearings for safety
  • Ensure access to testing and healthcare related to COVID-19 to all people in the country, regardless of immigration status
  • Extend work authorization for DACA recipients and TPS holders
Migrants in overcrowded border shelters are now trapped in unhealthy conditions as coronavirus spreads (Courtesy of Catholic News Service).

Closing borders and pressing health concerns have forced Jesuit ministries like the Guadalupe Homeless Project (GHP) to adapt their services. The shelter, run out of Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, now serves an additional 500 meals a week to meet a growing number of guests. GHP staff have adopted social distancing for sleeping arrangements and meal services to protect vulnerable guests, especially those who are elderly or undocumented. Many guests are cut off from medical treatment either for financial reasons or for fear of ICE enforcement.

Our vision of a Richmond that embraces each other in our shared humanity is dearer and more important than ever now, even while we are apart.

Additionally, the Sacred Heart Center (SHC) in Richmond, Virginia has transitioned its ESL and citizenship classes online and continued its ministry outreach via social media and radio. SHC has also ramped up emergency food and supplies delivery to families in need.

“We are committed to upholding our mission of connecting Latino families with tools to thrive and flourish. Our vision of a Richmond that embraces each other in our shared humanity is dearer and more important than ever now, even while we are apart,” says Tanya Gonzalez, executive director of SHC.

What can I do?

  • Take Action: Consider making a financial donation to a Jesuit-affiliated work that supports migrants. Contact each organization to see what gifts in kind are most needed at this time (i.e., non-perishable food items, cleaning supplies, diapers, etc.)
  • Advocate: Contact your member of Congress to request they support the Asylum Seeker Protection Act (H.R. 2662) to defund the Migrant Protection Protocols program.
  • Advocate: Call or email your member of Congress to discuss the ways COVID-19 is impacting immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Economic Injustice

Health and poverty are deeply connected — already the coronavirus’ impact on the chronically poor and homeless is cause for concern. People on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder are more likely to contract the coronavirus and more likely to die from it, research shows. Plus, 44 percent of American workers survive on hourly, minimum wage jobs that do not provide sick leave or telework policies. With many of these businesses closed until further notice, the working poor are left without stable incomes. Likewise, school closures will affect thousands of children who rely on school meals for daily nutrition.

Guests line up for meal service outside the Pope Francis Center. Meals have been moved outside to accommodate an influx of guests and promote social distancing (Courtesy of Pope Francis Center).

Congress has passed various pieces of legislation aimed at addressing the economic, housing and hunger impacts posed by COVID-19. While stimulus bills have ensured direct payments to families and other relief funding, we urge Congress to adopt more sweeping measures to protect the chronically poor, including:

  • Expanded unemployment insurance provisions
  • Funding to prevent evictions
  • Safety nets to mitigate loss of employment and child care
  • Emergency funds for food and the Emergency Food Shelter Program

While the Congressional relief packages are incomplete, these policies will provide critical support to struggling low-income communities, ensuring sustained housing and food access as the economy recovers.

Nurses outside of the Pope Francis Center take temperatures to ensure guests and staff members remain healthy (Courtesy of Pope Francis Center).

“The issue really is that, as the economic downturn happens, we are going to see fewer donations, and we will see a higher number of people experiencing homelessness as people lose their jobs, lose their income and then lose their homes,” says Fr. Tim McCabe, SJ, executive director of the Pope Francis Center, a homelessness ministry in Detroit. The Center has erected outdoor tents to accommodate the increase in guests at their daily meal service.

In New Orleans, the Harry Tompson Center (HTC) sees 120 homeless guests a day, providing lifesaving hygiene and educational resources. Without stable housing or healthcare access, HTC’s guests are highly vulnerable to contracting coronavirus and suffering more significant health consequences.

A staff member at HTC wears protective gloves and masks to protect himself and guests (Courtesy of Harry Tompson Center).

“We are witnessing just how vulnerable our homeless guests are,” says Vicki Judice, the executive director of HTC. “We have noticed that many have no idea what is going on with the pandemic.”

In response, HTC boosted its educational outreach, informing the New Orleans homeless population about coronavirus, working with the city to prepare for outbreaks and providing hygiene products and over-the-counter medications.

What can I do?

  • Learn more: Understand how COVID-19 infection is correlated with housing insecurity through this data map.
  • Take action: Many shelters and food cupboards have donation wish lists on their websites. Consider donating much-needed hygiene or food supplies to your local non-profit.
  • Advocate: Call or email your member of Congress and state and local-level officials, to raise your concerns about the ways COVID-19 is impacting people with low or no income.

Criminal Justice

Coronavirus exposes the injustices entrenched in our criminal justice system. The U.S. currently incarcerates 2.3 million people and is home to a staggering 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Federal and state policies that rely on punishment rather than rehabilitation have led to overcrowded and aging prison populations. People who are incarcerated are more likely to have health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and even tuberculosis, than the general U.S. population.

A coronavirus outbreak in a prison, therefore, could be life-threatening. OJE, along with interfaith and secular partners, calls on state and federal governments to use available mechanisms to:

  • Release from prison, where possible, elderly and medically vulnerable people
  • Release, where possible, individuals within 18 months of their release date
  • Provide social service and housing access to formerly incarcerated people
  • Make soap and water readily available for everyone in jails and prisons
  • Create and implement a COVID-19 response policy within each prison facility
  • Provide free phone calls, video conference access and email access for those who are incarcerated

“Prisons and jails are incredibly unhealthy places to be, and even more so when confronting a global pandemic like the one caused by COVID-19,” says Susan Weishar, a researcher at the Jesuit Social Research Institute. Illness spreads quickly in prisons because of “close quarters, delays in medical evaluations and treatment and rationed access to soap and water and other cleaning supplies. It is not a matter of if but when the coronavirus will enter Louisiana prisons and jails.”

Our proposed reforms could provide significant protection to people who are incarcerated and prevent against catastrophic outbreaks in our nation’s prisons.

What can I do?

  • Learn more: Read the latest news on COVID-19 and criminal justice reform on this resource page.
  • Build community: Join Ignatian Solidarity Network’s program, Solidarity on Tap with Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, for a discussion on criminal justice and spirituality during this pandemic.
  • Advocate: Call or email your member of Congress and state and local-level officials, to raise your concerns about the ways COVID-19 is impacting incarcerated indviduals.

Environmental Justice & Indigenous Rights

The effects of COVID-19 are being felt by everyone, but especially by people in communities with poor underlying health conditions. Rural areas, communities of color and indigenous people in particular are vulnerable to pandemics and often lack the resources to fully recover, including adequate healthcare facilities.

Indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable to epidemic infections, owing to higher rates of poverty and underlying chronic illness, such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota is cut off from many healthcare services (Courtesy of Catholic News Service).

According to Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services, Marc Miller, “overcrowded housing and poorer health outcomes” make First Nations especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

As coronavirus spreads, tribe leaders, including Jesuit partner and president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Rodney Bordeaux, have reported a shortage of test kits. “The states have been determining who gets a test and who does not,” says Bordeaux, which raises concerns about COVID-19 exacerbating existing biases in the provision of medicine.

Legislators must consider the interrelated crises of wealth inequality, racial inequity and ecological decline, which were in place long before COVID-19, and now risk intensification. We call for a just and holistic response to COVID-19 that addresses the needs of all and places special attention on the most vulnerable:

  • Free and accessible testing, treatment and protective equipment
  • Expanded hospital capacity, including in rural areas, territories and tribal lands
  • Full funding for Indian Health Service and expanded federal funding for Medicaid
Families line up for the mobile food pantry at St. Francis Mission last weekend (Courtesy of St. Francis Mission).

These health measures could protect thousands of indigenous communities. The St. Francis Mission, a Jesuit ministry that works closely with the Rosebud Sioux, predicts that 30 percent of the Rosebud community could be impacted. Their remote location is also cause for concern — spring floods frequently cut off the mission and reservation, which could make it hard for people with COVID-19 to access medical care.

What can I do?

  • Learn more: Native American tribes face shortages of COVID-19 tests.
  • Take action: Consider donating medical supplies to a Jesuit-affiliated ministry that works with indigenous communities.
  • Advocate: Call your member of Congress and tell them that coronavirus relief legislation must address the needs of communities disproportionately burdened by environmental harms, including the poor, communities of color and indigenous communities.


The Jesuit mission is rooted in the belief that education is a human right. As coronavirus has spread, Jesuit high schools, universities and international educational programs have closed to protect students and staff. While these measures are necessary, not all students have access to online learning or other resources that schools consistently provide, such as meals.

In the U.S., as many as 12 million students similarly struggle to access online learning tools due to lack of internet connection, and more than two-thirds of students rely on school for daily meals.

“While many of our schools here in the U.S. and Canada have moved to online learning, widespread internet access is still not a reality in many places, such as Haiti and other Latin American nations. As a result, teachers and schools are being challenged to develop creative and innovative ways to ensure students continue learning,” says Nate Radomski, executive director of Magis Americas.

While empty classes mean children are self-isolating, in many regions without internet access, this means they are also cut off from learning (Courtesy of Catholic News Service).

“Schools in Latin America are more than physical structures,” he adds. “In many cases they are the heart of the community. They provide a safe space. They are recreational spaces, libraries, meeting places and, more recently, in countries such as Venezuela, a source of food security. We are working to review potential alternatives to ensure access to education, community development and food security programs are not interrupted.”

What can I do?

  • Learn more: The U.S. Food and Nutrition Service has updated its hunger prevention programs in response to COVID-19. Learn how your local community or schools could be eligible.
  • Take action: Non-profits are working to source low-cost internet packages for students in need. Access their response toolkit.
  • Take action: Many local schools and organizations are offering drive-through meals to supplement school lunches. Consider volunteering (if it is safe) or donating food supplies online.

This story was produced by the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology. To learn more and get involved with our advocacy work, sign up for our action alerts below.

Created By
MegAnne Liebsch