As the public struggles to adapt to changing social and economic conditions, experts say underserved populations are likely to be most negatively affected, apart from senior citizens with prior health conditions.
According to the peer-reviewed health care journal Health Affairs, when personal liberties become restricted in times of national emergency, marginalized populations face increased potential for discriminatory law enforcement practices and harsher consequences as a result of physical distancing.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11.1% of Wyoming residents live below the poverty line — just below the U.S. average.
People of color in Wyoming live below the poverty level at substantially higher rates than whites, who comprise nearly 93% of the state’s population. More than one quarter of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in poverty, according to the 2013-2017 American Community Survey for Wyoming.
Sheridan County Justice Office Administrator Dan Lindly said among the population with which he works, many are only beginning to learn and develop positive social activities and support systems, express themselves in group sessions, internalize feedback and participate in community environments like Alcoholics Anonymous, church services and exercise programs.
The SCJO provides probation services and programming for those who often suffer the consequences of addiction in conjunction with low socioeconomic status.
While each outlet has been disrupted by physical distancing and quarantine protocols, clients can connect via phone, FaceTime or through online support groups as positive options, Lindly said.
“A key component of recovery is resiliency,” Lindly said in an email to The Sheridan Press. “That means learning what one’s strengths are and building on them so the negative effect of stressful events can be mitigated against.”
The SCJO has made several adjustments to office operations in recent weeks but continues to work effectively with Sheridan County courts, he said. SCJO has scaled back urinalysis testing and is communicating with clients by phone or text often.
Lindly cautioned that many can resort to negative coping behaviors during times of stress, including substance use, isolating and exhibiting fear or anger — a greater challenge for those who haven’t had much practice with positive coping behaviors in life.
Lindly said today, as with any other time, proper dispensation of justice requires balancing accountability, safety and providing services to meet needs. Overall financial insecurity — namely unemployment, fewer future job opportunities and child care — have been among the top concerns for Lindly’s clients, especially those working in the service industry, he said.
Low socioeconomic status often translates to limited resources and inability to obtain essential goods and services, increasing the risk of suffering from chronic conditions, diseases and other factors that make a person more susceptible to contracting COVID-19, according to Health Affairs authors and academics Emily Benfer and Lindsay Wiley.
“It is widely acknowledged that people experiencing poverty and other marginalized groups have historically borne the brunt of infectious disease epidemics and government responses to them,” they wrote.
Living with minimal control over housing options also presents potential problems, as low-income families are more likely to live in homes with poor environmental conditions like air quality, mold and smaller spaces, which makes quarantining away from cohabitants challenging for sick family members.
However, most of the 40% of homes in the U.S. with health and safety hazards are located in metropolitan areas, not rural Wyoming.
Still, the state’s rural nature presents additional considerations for low-income families, like proximity to food distribution. Victoria Ziton with Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies estimates families needing food in the state will double in the next few weeks, with schools and public facilities closed and wage losses.
Next week, the Food Bank is expected to implement a drive-thru mobile pantry featuring prepackaged food in an effort to maintain social distancing protocols.
Independent Living Coordinator Melinda Abbott with Volunteers of America Northern Rockies said for homeless youth and those transitioning out of the foster care system, this is a particularly difficult time.
These youth lack a family safety net and have little to no savings or cash flow, Abbott said. Losing housing is often the first cost of unemployment for young adults in transition.
“In this current crisis with the coronavirus pandemic many of them are unable to work and go to school,” Abbott said in a prepared statement. “Without income, they are unable to pay rent or purchase food and are at a higher risk of becoming homeless once again…They were already starting from a bad hand, and the economic downturn only makes things worse.”
VOANR uses video conferencing, social media, virtual life skills classes and non-contact delivery to continue case management, she said. A few donors have “stepped up” with funding in the past week.
Abbott said with the threat of a spreading virus and potentially long term effects of unemployment, VOANR expects to continually increase the number of youth served for several years down the road.
Note from The Press: My Bighorns, our free app, has a dedicated section with this page and more, so you can access the latest updates easily on your smartphone or tablet. Download from the Apple Store or Google Play.