COVID-19 exacerbates Mississippi's deep racial, economic and health care divides

Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, has a population of three million. While only one-third is black, this group accounts for more than half of the state's COVID-19 deaths.
12:47 | 05/22/20

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Transcript for COVID-19 exacerbates Mississippi's deep racial, economic and health care divides
Mississippi. The poorest state in the U.S. And home to the largest population of black Americans, bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The last thing she said to me was I love you. And stay strong. Families torn apart by the virus. Now calling out a health care system they say is working against them. Has she been anything but black or brown, I think she would have gotten the care that she needed. Plus, a champion for the voice louse. Reverend Dr. Barber fighting for justice. I question our leadership. If we can't get it right he now, when can we get it right? This is a special edition of "Nightline." Pandemic, a nation divided. As a parent, we always fear that we'll go before our children. For Cassandra Rollins, the grief is still raw. It feels like an open wound. It's a deep hurt. It's actually painful. This hurt has actually got physical. It's unexplainable. Hey, y'all. Last month, her daughter, a mother of two, smiling and joking just days before she died. It's like it's torture in this house, but we see a blessing. Taken by covid-19. The first to die in Hines county. Now grieving a child in a system she says treats you differently if you're black. Mississippi has come a long way, but Mississippi has a long way to go. The health care system is failing us. When you are poor, health care is not as good for you. Mississippi. Its majestic magnolia trees, lazy rivers, fog-topped hills, but buried in this rich and dark soil, the bitter fruit of slavery and a steady diet of despair, not impossible, but difficult to break. Growing up in Mississippi, black and brown means the least, not the best, the least, the leftovers, the crumbs that no one else wants. Here, the pandemic is exploiting an already toxic mix. Deeply-ingrained racism and historic lack of access to health care. All hitting the black and brown communities that comprise Mississippi's essential workforce. And the covid-19 disparity shows Mississippi has the largest black population in the nation. African-Americans make up more than a third of the population but account for more than half of the state's deaths. For every life taken by covid-19, it's a family, a community, broken and forever changed. Shalandra wasn't just my daughter, she was my friend. She was a light, a public schoolteacher beloved by her students and those who knew her best. No matter how much she was going through it, she always made a way. In late March, she and her daughter michelan both got sick and went to the doctor. She was telling me about headaches, she normally didn't have headaches. She went to the doctor. He gave her a Z pack for flu. Never tested her for covid. She also had diabetes, when her symptoms didn't get any better, shalandra took her family to the hospital. We had to almost fight for a test. We was constantly saying we've been exposed. So I just had to tell them that I was diabetic. Home to nearly 3 million people, Mississippi is the poorest state in the union. Studies show blacks get inferior health care and suffer negative stereo typing. In nearly every category, Mississippi consistently ranks dead last or close to it. Shalandra's results came back positive. Two days later, michelan heard her mother fall. When the ambulance arrived she was still responsive, but within an hour her heart stopped. This is what really, truly hurts me and gets me. She left home. I would give it no more than 30 minutes. They tell me she's gone. The last thing she told me was I love you and stay strong. Because of the restrictions, they could not have a proper funeral, just a service by the grave site. Still reeling from the death of her son last year, this almost broke her. At least with my son, my family could fly in and be by myself. This time, me and my daughter sherry had to do this all our own. It hit home for the mayor. The two were childhood classmates. This has taken away real people and real lives. During this pandemic, the 37 Democrat has been in a war with tait reeves. Reeves has started to reopen the state. Jackson is a predominantly black city. You've made one calculation and the governor has made a different calculation. There seems to be an element of race in that to me. Well, I won't speak to the values or the personal beliefs of the he governor and whether he doesn't care about black and brown communities, but I can say that black and brown communities are most adversely affected. We have a public health crisis in this state and in this country, while at the same time we have an economic crisis. One of the things that we've been trying to do to protect our African-American population is we've worked very hard to get as much as information, as much education out. With the pandemic killing so many people of color, the mayor sees equal access to health care as his generation's most important battle. People can't afford to be sick. So they are confronted with, you know, dinner table discussion about how they put food on the table or how they pay for the much-needed medical attention. That's especially true for workers in one of the nation's most crucial industries. The red ordering the meat processing plants to stay open. Here in Mississippi, chicken is king. The poultry industry generates more than $2.5 billion each year. It directly employs more than 25,000 people, many who can't perform their jobs from home and therefore are at greater risk for catching the disease, workers like 50 year old Clara Kincaid. Seems like she was beloved by her family. Absolutely. She was the backbone of our family. Reporter: She had worked at the Peco plant for more than 207 20 years. She started getting sick in April. She was coughing like crazy, couldn't hardly get her breath. We've talked to ten employees at poultry plants in Mississippi and they all say they're afraid to talk out of fear for retaliation. Did she ever express that kind of concern? Yes. The retaliation would have been fear of losing your job or position. Black and brown people, we just don't have a lot of choices. People have to do what they have to do. She's a single mom. She's got four boys to take care of. By the time Clara went to get tested she had to drive to another county 40 miles away. After which, her family says she was sent back home. Two days later, Clara Kincaid died. Her cause of death, acute respiratory arrest and covid-19. All of them are considered essential workers, right? To feed America's families. Now her family is without their mother. What does it mean to be black in Mississippi? In the midst of covid-19? I'll tell you this. Had she been, yeah. Anything but black or brown, I think she would have gotten the care that she needed. They would not have sent her home to die. And she deserved better. She really deserved better. They get up every morning, going to work, knowing that covid-19 is in the facility. They're our heroes. You hear me? Randy Hadley represents a union that advocates for poultry workers. Clara wasn't one of his workers, but he speaks for the workers in If these people don't go to work there would be no poultry on the shelves. There have been more than 3500 cases in Mississippi. You have as many as 600 to 700 people. And think York on an assembly line. There's no way that they can run a poultry operation and people stand six foot apart. There's just absolutely no way. Reporter: He says government safety guidelines aren't enough. Workers need testing done weekly. Peco foods tells ABC news they were unaware Clara's death was related to covid-19. At the time of her death they add there had been no covid-19 cases at the plant. According to the company they now provide he ppe and have adopted the late east recommendations including temperature checks. They provide paid time off for employees affected by covid-19. Despite the risk, in these small towns, these are often the best jobs available. This man asked that we not use his name or face. He says he worked at the Peco plant in sebastopol. Last August he was arrested in a sweeping I.C.E. Raid, considered the largest crackdown in state history. Involving hundreds of agents, fanning out over six cities in Mississippi. Peco foods uses e-verify and says it did not know at the time its workers were undocumented. This worker was taken to a correctional facility in Louisiana where he stayed for nine months. He says in his holding area there were up to 44 people. I.C.E. Confirms there have been 62 cases at the prison and that now all I.C.E. Detainees are issued cloth masks, a policy that did not begin until mid April. As for this worker, his case is ongoing. He recalls his last birthday spent in detention. The day we spoke with Cassandra Rollins, it was also her birthday. This birthday not easy. At all. She's raising her two grandchildren now. In their eyes, she sees her beloved shalandra. That gives me hope, that gives me a lot of hope. Hope has had a hard life in many parts of Mississippi. Here, deep in the delta for so many, that day has yet to appear. I blame America and the health care system. That's who I blame. Because I feel like it could have been prevented. She had a bright future.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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