Zakat Foundation’s Swift Shift to Shield the Vulnerable from COVID-19

The race to deliver scarce medical wear, food, and hygiene kits to beat back the pandemic in underserved US communities

April 14, 2020

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“It was amazing!”

That’s the exclamation point Yvonne McCauley, internal medicine program coordinator for Franciscan Health, a small community hospital just south of Chicago, put on her reaction to seeing stacked cases of 4,000 pairs of scarce medical gloves at Zakat Foundation of America’s Bridgeview, Illinois headquarters.

In a small miracle, the international Muslim charity procured them for her frontline coronavirus caregivers serving predominantly African American Olympia Fields, part of a cache of 100,000 sets secured and distributed to often overlooked hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes serving under-resourced communities in cities like Detroit, Durham, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles.

Expecting a little box, McCauley discovered what a growing number of other vanguard human service workers on five continents have in recent years about Zakat Foundation. The outsized resourcefulness and innovative agility of its executive leadership, dedicated relief specialists, and passionate supporters is guided by a considerable moral conscience.

They’ve grown relentlessly effective in converting that compassion into spot-on local material aid that answers the cry of the moment from the most helpless and hurting in humanitarian emergencies.

“If you listen, the uncared-for suffering will tell you exactly what they need,” says Halil Demir, Zakat Foundation’s founder and executive director, now personally leading its COVID-19 emergency charge.

“For 20 years, we’ve been listening. We’ve built a living culture out of it – getting to the hard-to-reach, the neglected, the afflicted, the deprived – directly delivering to them the urgent relief they’re literally crying for.”

Yet as able as Demir, his team and Zakat Foundation’s faithful base have become, they’ve found the coronavirus crisis a different order of challenge.

“This pandemic, it demands quickness, change, sustained, repeated giving, and an inventiveness that’s just unprecedented.”

‘Amazing’ Nails

Zakat Foundation’s sudden March shift to full pandemic relief mode – finding, getting, and rushing food, hygiene items, protective equipment, and financial aid to the most exposed and least-cared-for people in the U.S. and abroad – has still been breathtaking.

That’s literally true for Zakat Foundation’s hard-pressed staff and repeatedly called-on donors. They’ve had barely a breather on the heels of ongoing dire refugee and displacement calamities in Yemen and Venezuela/Columbia in January; Idlib, Syria in February; and the anti-Muslim carnage in New Delhi, India in March.

All the while, they’ve been readying for Ramadan, the Islamic lunar fasting month, likely to begin April 24. That’s when many pay their yearly obligatory Zakat alms, making it the major funding season for Muslim charities.

But credit Demir for seeing COVID-19's catastrophic potential early through this humanitarian fog – more so for turning the whole charitable enterprise on a dime to try and mitigate its impact on the most susceptible (not coincidentally society’s most neglected) to the contagion’s ravages.

“The victims are the same people and places we’ve served since our start,” says Demir. “But the coronavirus threat has really raised the life-and-death stakes for them. At the same time, it’s piled huge difficulties and obstacles in our way, when these people are already in desperate humanitarian crises.”

On the day of the first U.S. coronavirus death, March 20, Zakat Foundation staff packed 10,000 household lunch boxes and an equal number of family food baskets filled with water, beverages, and weeks’ worth of staples, and also stocked hygiene kits, for people in high risk communities in need of food, and to others unable to leave home.

“We knew right away that the most vulnerable – the poorest one’s locked up in our unspoken no-provider zones and the few frontline healers silently, selflessly serving them – were going to fall into critical food, hygiene supply, and PPE shortages instantly,” says Demir. “So we made an instant shift, and started stockpiling, packaging, and delivering these items to them.” (PPE is the common abbreviated reference for personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks, and gowns for health workers).

A member of National VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), Zakat Foundation staff actually delivered the goods to those who couldn’t access them, while also sending cases out in bulk to churches, community centers, and public facilities in Chicago, North Carolina, Delaware, St. Louis, and Southern California.

Aiding Mind and Body

Their thinking didn’t stop at the physical needs created by the pandemic.

Demir and his team also had the foresight to harness the professional services of its thriving mental health arm, the Khalil Center, a professional psychological-spiritual national mental health group. It made its help available nationwide – for free – for people adapting to the isolation of the physical separation, sheltering-in-place recommendations, and lockdown orders beginning to come down.

“There’s a secondary contagion to COVID-19,” says Hooman Keshavarzi, Khalil Center’s executive director. “Panic and anxiety combined with forced social isolation and social distancing — the sudden, unpredicted change has drastically impacted all of our lives, resulting in detrimental mental health effects, especially given the uncertainty of how long such measures will remain in place.”

With a dedicated 855-number crisis line, strong webtherapy services, an open chat forum, and a series of informational YouTube videos teaching practical steps for family and self-care in light of COVID-19, Zakat Foundation anticipated the needs of patients who could not reach their providers and others who felt a newly urgent need to seek out psychological consultation.

Harnessing Two Decades of Zakat and Sadaqah to the Downtrodden

The impoverished, victims of war and violence, and those stricken by natural disasters – these are the exceptionally vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic Demir’s talking about. They often come out of the same populations around the world Zakat Foundation has long provided basic and emergency aid in the form of food and water wells, medicines and healthcare equipment, shelters and daily use supplies.

No need to let your humanitarian imagination wander far. Increasingly, Zakat Foundation’s leadership has found it necessary to ply their relief work right here at home.

Zakat Foundation, moreover, has a deep history of helping American communities afflicted by the devastating socio-economic fallout of imbedded racism and communal trauma, including African, Hispanic, and Native Americans.

Helping Those Hit Hardest by Coronavirus

This is the humanitarian backdrop for Zakat Foundation’s focus on small medical groups in underserved communities.

Following the charity hierarchies the Quran sets forth for Zakat and Sadaqah, Zakat Foundation puts poor and high-risk people and institutions first – from the coronavirus epicenter in New York to other hot bed locations like Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, and Southern California, among others, our team is on the ground and the front lines. This early strategy proved crucial, maybe lifesaving, as health agencies, states, and even the federal government either couldn’t find, or initially wouldn’t send, the rationed provisions to these “afterthought” facilities and populations.

“Our goal is to reach the smaller community hospitals that are often overlooked,” says Donna Neil-Demir, Zakat Foundation’s health adviser, a registered nurse. “We recognize everybody needs it. But we are a nonprofit that stands for the poverty-stricken globally and for social justice.”

The institutions Zakat Foundation targeted for PPE aid qualify as doubly desperate. Compared to their big-name counterparts, they’re not only slight but slighted. They struggle just to keep the doors open every day. That’s because as designated Safety-Net facilities, they’re located in deeply impoverished neighborhoods, treating mostly ever-more underfunded Medicare and Medicaid patients, who have no other recourse to healthcare.

That’s the horror Demir and his team saw in the emerging pandemic onslaught. Widening shortages amid a surging threat.

It raised troubling questions.

What of the poor? The captive prisoners and immigrant detainees? The stranded wayfaring and refugees, displaced, and homeless? The essential workers needing peace of mind in the face of harrowing risk? Who will help these unprotected populations?

In fact, these highly coronavirus-susceptible groups make up half the divine categories the Quran exclusively designates as the entitled recipients of Zakat – the most deserving of all the deprived.

They’re also the people now suffering most from the insanity of America’s utterly shattered healthcare system – itself a reflection of the moral failures embedded in the fundamental structures of our society, now nakedly exposed in the truth-telling mirror of this coronavirus pandemic, the crisis of our times.

Relieving the High Risk

As confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases lurch toward the 600,000 mark (approaching a third of the world’s infections) and American deaths top 23,000 (nearly a fifth of global deaths), chilling reports of disease and death disparity demographics have finally eked through the din.

New York COVID-19 statistics show the city’s African American and Latino victims dying at nearly twice the rate of its white confirmed cases. Out of every 100,000 New Yorkers, 23 Latinos and 20 African Americans die from coronavirus infection, compared with 10 white New Yorkers.

There’s an underlying economic reality to this. New York’s highest positive test rates correlate with five of its lowest yearly per capita income zip codes, with a $27,708 average. Its lowest confirmed coronavirus cases come out of five of its highest individual earner zip codes, with a mean income of $118,166.

New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee – cities with significant, concentrated African American populations – similarly record disturbing imbalances in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

African Americans account for more than 70 percent of deaths in Louisiana from coronavirus, but make up only 33 percent of its residents.

Chicago announced 70 percent of its COVID-19 infections come out of its 30 percent African American population. That gap grows more lethal in the state context. Illinois health officials say that its 14 percent African American population comprises 30 percent of all its coronavirus cases and a staggering 41 percent of its deaths.

At 22 percent of North Carolina’s public, African Americans make up 37 percent of its confirmed cases, In Albany, Georgia, they constitute a stunning 90 percent of the city’s COVID-19 deaths.

These coronavirus discrepancies by race are still difficult to assess nationally since the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), though tallying an impressive array of individualized COVID-19 infection statistics, including ethnicity and race, has yet to release numbers related to anything but age, gender, and health conditions.

But be wary. Some will use these figures to racialize the results. They’ll point to them as proof of African American biological susceptibility to, and therefore the cause for the spread of, coronavirus. This bigoted idea holds the fiction of “race” as a natural category that can cause specific outcomes.

Rather, these statistics point to something more insidious: a wholesale indictment of the sweeping, systemic inequality sewn indelibly into the fabric of American society. Anyone the nation consigns to the fate of this unfairness – and this transcends race – it disposes to a higher likelihood of infection and death from COVID-19 for a raft of reasons.

Look closer.

African Americans in higher proportions than the general population live crammed into more densely populated urban areas, making self-isolation and social distancing much less possible.

Only 20 percent have jobs they can do from home to begin with, compared to about a third of whites, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This means African Americans disproportionally work in lower income positions designated as essential – healthcare, food service, and public utilities and transportation. So person-to-person contact instances total meaningfully higher in this cohort than others.

Most telling, African Americans are half as likely to have insurance as white Americans. Indeed, more than a quarter live in communities called “healthcare deserts,” predominantly African American and low-income Hispanic neighborhoods with few or even no primary-care providers, according to a Johns Hopkins Public Health study. This, in turn, is directly related to lopsidedly low federal caps on Medicaid, which make it economically undesirable for physicians to practice in areas where many depend upon this health coverage to see a doctor.

Numerous studies have also shown that, regardless of their socio-economic grouping, African Americans and other racial minorities experience bias from healthcare providers that diminishes the quality of care they do receive.

So race is no framework for a real measure of the underlying societal realities that help the coronavirus pandemic to kill off non-white minorities at such high rates. It's the endemic poverty in these communities that subjects them in excess to lung- and immune-system damaging pollution, contagion-welcoming, crowded public transportation, and low-paying jobs that won’t give employees health coverage, sick leave, or pandemic stay-at-home status.

African Americans – in both significant numbers and cohesive geographic areas – cannot get basic healthcare to begin with. This contributes to their higher proportions of what is called comorbidities, a simultaneous presence of underlying diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, etc. Such conditions render those who have them more susceptible to death, particularly from an aggressive respiratory disorder like COVID-19

In other words, the system has set up the impoverished – whatever their skin color – to die earlier in general and in far greater proportions and geographic swathes from aggressive contagions like COVID-19 than other groups of the American population, in a society where, poverty does correlate with structures of prejudice based on race. But for these same underlying reasons, including poor healthcare infrastructure, many experts predict rural Americans, most of whom are white, will experience similar pandemic proportions, somewhat later as the coronavirus closes in from America’s high-density urban centers.

For example, early on, the federal government focused its entire anemic coronavirus pandemic response – especially precious testing – on people traveling home in planes and on cruises from other countries. That’s a health regime that privileges wealth and denies the poor’s equal claim to human worth.

“Anything that’s a human right is a humanitarian concern,” says Demir, “and health and healthcare certainly rank high as human rights. Our religion, our supporters, our consciences all call us to right these imbalances. That’s why we’re there, trying to provide for the people hit hardest by this pandemic.”

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