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Transcript: Coronavirus: Relief Efforts with CORE Co-Founders Sean Penn & Ann Young Lee

MR. EDGERS: Hi, there, everybody. I’m Geoff Edgers, the national arts reporter at The Washington Post, and welcome to Washington Post Live.

We're fortunate to have two people here who can talk about two issues that are really key in what's going on in our world right now. This is under the heading of "Coronavirus: Relief Efforts," but CORE, which is the organization that these two co‑founded, is also working a lot in Haiti right now and has for more than a decade. And CORE is a nonprofit that basically helps people in the wake of manmade and natural disasters. It stands for Community Organized Relief Effort, and we're so pleased to have Ann Lee, who's been doing this work for years and years, and Academy Award‑winning actor and director Sean Penn. So thanks for being with us today.

MR. PENN: Good to be here.

MS. LEE: Thanks for having us.

MR. EDGERS: Ann, let's start with you because you are in Haiti right now, and we're seeing what I'd call horrific images and stories about what's going on there in the wake of the earthquake. Just tell us what you're seeing right now down there.

MS. LEE: You know, it really recalls 2010 in a lot of ways, but in so many more ways, it's much worse. Just the fact that we are seeing an incredible amount of destruction in homes and people that are still trapped under the rubble. To layer on top of that, the insecurity that's making it difficult for the humanitarian assistance to get in along with a huge amount of food insecurity that's been happening over the last few years, all of these layers are creating just the perfect storm of a very complex and difficult situation and in some ways a lot worse than the 2020 earthquake. And we're not even talking and including in the fact that they are still under COVID restrictions and that we're still dealing with a major pandemic.

MR. EDGERS: Sean, in 2010, you went down there, and you thought you were going for a couple weeks to help out, and you ended up staying for nine months and running one of the relocation camps. Tell us, as far as you can tell, how CORE is helping right now and sort of what the biggest needs and challenges in Haiti are at the moment.

MR. PENN: Yeah. Well, I will probably quickly defer back to Ann because she is there. I'll be joining her this coming week.

But we were in with our‑‑with heavy equipment teams and medical right away. I believe on day one. The heavy equipment is there both to clear access routes, the roads as well as to initially help with search and rescue efforts and general rubble removal to move towards the eventuality of getting what remains back on its feet with the ability of movement.

But Ann could be much more specific to that, and especially, I think it's important that she rather than I speak to what the current needs are so that people understand it.

MR. EDGERS: Ann, I'll let you‑‑I'm sorry.

MS. LEE: Sure. I was just going to say more than ever right now, I know that there's a lot of inclination to send things. I know that there's been a lot of mistrust from the 2010 of misuse of funds, but we need to support local businesses. There's a lot of businesses that are not affected that need the support, and to be bringing in things from the outside is not helpful. We need basically to support our existing structures here, so purchasing locally, supporting our local government, and working within what is here is going to help in the long term. So sending things from outside in is not going to be helpful. So please just find reliable organizations like CORE to be able to send cash and send money so that we can actually support the local efforts that are here, for example, from our all‑Haitian team and our local suppliers and really sort of look long term rather than just these short‑term efforts.

MR. EDGERS: Ann, I also wanted to ask you‑‑I mean, obviously, this earthquake happens after the assassination of a president, in the midst of a pandemic. I sense that vaccination rates are not great in Haiti. How does that complicate what you're trying to do? How does that compare to what you were dealing with in 2010?

MS. LEE: For example, just getting our materials out to the affected areas, there's a number of roadblocks that people have made because they're quite frustrated. There's a lot of insecurity that makes it very difficult for the assistance to get out. That is a factor that's so different from what we saw in 2010.

On top of that, the COVID restrictions are‑‑or COVID being here is just very difficult. Like, the vaccine rates are so low. I think only about 25,000 vaccines have actually been completed thus far. We have 500,000 vaccines that have been donated that are going to be expired in November, and getting these vaccines out is so important at the same time while we're dealing with this other crisis in the south.

MR. PENN: May I just qualify‑‑

MR. EDGERS: What happened‑‑I'm sorry. Yeah.

MR. PENN: Yeah. I just wanted just be clear to make sure that anyone listening knows that when Ann says it's not about sending things, that does not include the needed medical supplies, et cetera. She's talking more specifically about textiles and people want to send clothes and shoes and hats. Those are the things that we want to leave to the local merchants, artisans, and others to create and sell there.

MR. EDGERS: Sean, in 2010, notably, you saw that there was a need for morphine, and people weren't getting it, and they were dying, and they were injured. And it was a horrific idea, the idea that they were suffering like this, and you found a way to get it down there. So I don't know if it's a supply issue with the vaccine. I don't know what supply issues you're dealing with as far as medical supplies. Are you finding you're able to mobilize people now? Are you working connections to try to get this medicine down there and get the vaccinations going in a better way? I'm not asking that question very well, but you know what I'm saying.

MR. PENN: You know, it was only about two weeks prior to the assassination of President Moïse that Ann and I had a Zoom conference with him and were able to get‑‑you know, I think it wasn't until then, until the Haitian government was truly motivated to start implementing COVID vaccine programs and initially with their health care workers. So, after that conversation, we were very quickly mobilizing because we finally were able to do it in concert with the government, which was going to be necessary in terms of being able to make requests on vaccines from the United States.

An initial 1.5 million vaccines was committed. We were getting ready to rock and roll, and then that horrible assassination happened. And the country went into lockdown again, and now the earthquake has happened. So we're trying to juggle a lot of balls at once.

Ann, again, can speak to where we are currently in our Haiti program with vaccine implementation.

MS. LEE: We have about 25 vaccine locations, and we're working with great partners on the ground. We work through the ministry of health, with Partners in Health, with [unclear], and the idea was to expand quickly to about 60 before the earthquake happened.

Right now, we still want to keep pushing out those vaccines. It's so critically important, especially right now when we're going to get potentially some congregate settings in the south to get vaccines even into the south as we're dealing with this emergency.

So one of the things that we are really focused on is having sort of a package of services, not just the debris removal, the health mobile units that we have, shelter kits because there's still a storm coming our way next week again, but also to get vaccines down into the south as fast, quickly as possible.

MR. EDGERS: So, Ann, it's not an issue of people resisting it. It's an issue of supply, or are you also seeing people resisting it for various reasons?

MS. LEE: There is resistance. There is most definitely some resistance. It's sort of this chicken or egg situation, where I believe because the supply wasn't there that the government and people didn't want to create a demand that they couldn't actually supply.

Now that we have the supply, there has been a huge amount of effort to get the mobilization, the sensitization out there of the need to get vaccines, but for the most part, we haven't done enough or we're not out there well enough to be able to convince people that this is safe and that they are available.

You know, is started to get some traction before the earthquake. Now that this happened, sort of all efforts and all focus is on that, but we're still very committed to making sure that the sensitization and getting people to understand and get educated around it is happening in full force.

MR. EDGERS: Sean, I pelted you with questions about this a couple weekends ago for a piece we just did, but I think people want to understand and hear a little bit about Haiti and your connection and what you found so compelling about that country to have made such a commitment to it over so much time, because there are other people who have also been drawn to it. It sounds like there's something very moving once you get down there and see the way that country works.

MR. PENN: Well, you know, when I went, so much of this was accidental, and to my fortune but despite the reasons around it, it was because I happened to be free at the time. I had never been to Haiti, went down with this notion that we would rent a couple of trucks, find a couple of people to grit and ride around and get these intravenous pain medications distributed.

While down there, there were two things that were happening. One is I saw what I considered to be largely the dysfunction of so many NGOs, not all but so many, and I felt that there might be a better, more direct way to handle‑‑initially, it was just the emergency issues of the earthquake and later into development. But all of that was happening while what started as a group of Americans coming in, we began to pick up leadership from within Haiti, and then it became a dominantly Haitian‑run organization.

Then following their lead, in a sense, was what was inspiring about it, the people of Haiti. We can talk until the end of the world about how extraordinary they are having faced the kind of relentless wrath of living devils and whatever sort of gods on the natural and the manmade disaster front, but there's still so much fight in them. And I think that there's a kind of sacred duty, you know, when one crosses paths with that personality of humanity to stand behind them.

MR. EDGERS: Sean, you have a film coming out this week, "Flag Day," which is very important to you. Your daughter is in it. You directed it. You're in it. But I wonder, knowing you, is there part of you that says, "I don't think I'm going to go to a press conference and talk about this movie" or "I don't need to go to a screening. I need to get to Haiti right now, and I need to help Ann out and work with her"? Is that discussion, in polite terms, going on back of house right now?

MR. PENN: It's my decision to do both, actually, because I do believe that movies can, at their best, be a kind of profound medicine, and I believe in this movie. I want people to see it. I especially want people to see it theatrically, which it will be exclusively for a time.

However, I also must say, as much as I want people to come to see "Flag Day" in a theater, I do not want people‑‑I would request that anyone who is not vaccinated do not come and either wait to see it when it streams or not see it.

I am going to‑‑fortunately, I have a great team. So they've able to have gotten just as good a start on what they're doing under Ann's leadership, as with me down there, and maybe stronger because, you know, you don't have two chefs in the kitchen. I'll be down next week, and yeah, I think on this stuff, with such a strong organization and with such a strong CEO, I'm able to walk and chew gum at the same time and to honor my commitment to both.

[Technical interruption]

MR. EDGERS: Sorry about that.


MR. EDGERS: A little creepy. Sorry.

Hey, I'm going to change the subject a little bit. I've got my Dr. Fauci mug here, as you can see. It's been through a lot. I dropped it once, so it's got no handle on it.

But we're dealing with this fourth wave of the coronavirus, basically, and we've just seen in the last couple days talk about boosters and getting a timetable for that. Ann, tell us about before you headed to Haiti--I'm sure that was top of mind. CORE went from having, I think, seven in employees in the United States to having thousands and running all these vaccination and testing sites. What's next as far as CORE's involvement in that process?

MS. LEE: Right now, we are going to be focusing on boosters, and there is a huge swath of folk who are still unvaccinated. So we are taking a much more ground approach to get down into those neighborhoods with trusted partners to make sure that everyone gets vaccinated.

I mean, we're doing this in Brazil and India, and it's going to take the rest of the world at least a year and a half, a year to year and a half to get fully vaccinated. In that time span, not knowing what variants might be coming up again, it's just providing much more urgency for us not to just vaccinate outside but also the remaining folks that are unvaccinated in the United States.

On top of that, we also know that a lot of folk are sort of making difficult decisions, daily decisions of choosing vaccinations over missing work, and so we're seeing this huge gap between services and the folks that need it the most. So we're providing these resources around our vaccination sites, and we want to grow that so that while you're getting‑‑even if you're not going to get vaccinated, you're going to get tested, and you want more information. You're not ready to get vaccinated. Well, we want to provide you with resources that you can have to make sure that you can have access to food and any of the dozens of organizations that are around as well as the federal, city, and the county programs that are around.

We're going to do health screenings as well with our partner organization, like Carbon Health, and many others across the United States to make sure that we're really sort of a community point that is surrounding all of the issues that have been uncovered because of this virus, that there's a huge gap of access to health and resources in these communities.

MR. EDGERS: How do you balance‑‑you know, you have this huge group of people that have not been vaccinated, and then you have this huge group of people, basically everybody in my house, who want to get a booster shot, like, tomorrow. So how do you balance getting to those people who haven't even taken the shot for whatever reason and distributing the booster? Because we seem to need that booster. We're hearing about so many breakthroughs right now.

MS. LEE: I think we've developed a huge amount of capacity operationally to kind of expand and contract as needed, and you need to have both. That's why we've been very flexible to create these large static sites, these large fixed sites where huge numbers of people can come in, thousands per day, which we're very accustomed to, but at the same time have these tiny mobile units that are sitting within these little communities and having just a day‑to‑day personal conversation that is much more down onto the ground. You have to be able to do both, and I think that's why we've been so successful. I think it's because we've been very adaptive to the very different things that are needed to get this vaccine out.

MR. EDGERS: Sean, it's always interesting to see someone who has a film coming out tell people to stay away if they don't meet some condition, and you go to these Q&As, and you say, hey, just tell people who aren't vaccinated, do not come to my movie. How do you deal with, on a simple level, the fact that we live in this glorious country where there are wonderful things, but there are also so many people who are unwilling to get vaccinated or give you an argument for why it's taking away their liberties? How do you deal with that? Because we have such a problem having conversations today. I guess yelling at them doesn't work. What do you do on a simple level here?

MR. PENN: Well, look, I would say irrationality is the religion of the radical libertarian in America today, and so I think the strongest first step we can take is to focus on the larger group of Americans who do recognize that the great history of individual independence, and our country's independence is a recognition of interdependence. And we just have to put one foot in front of the other every day and just assume that the church of that religion will ultimately collapse, because it really doesn't have a foundation in anything but fear and rage and alienation.

MR. EDGERS: We get viewer mail, as you know. We have a question from Judith in Colorado. I'll let either of you take this. She has asked about the testing you've been doing and the vaccinations you've been doing in Navajo Nation. You know, a third of households, I think, lack plumbing and running water. Tell us about how CORE got involved there and what specifically took place.

MR. PENN: Yeah. Again, I will quickly defer to Ann in the follow‑up.

We went into Navajo Nation very early. I think we were able to be very productive there, particularly because, you know, there are challenging cultural hurdles in terms of making sure that there's a trust. There's been a lot of violation of trust from outsiders coming in, and I think we started to work with President Nez right in the initial testing period and with the Indian Health Service and Johns Hopkins, who have had a presence and a trusted presence there for about four decades. But Ann can give you more detail.

MS. LEE: We went down and really sort of‑‑what we learned in Navajo Nation is what sort of‑‑it was the base of how we responded in so many places.

You know, the testing and the contact tracing piece was only one tiny piece of the puzzle. To actually effect change, we realize we needed to have other resources, food from World Central Kitchen that we organized as well as shelter because a lot of people asking them to separate out was very difficult, asking people to wash their hands when they don't have running water, so having hygiene kits and setting up water stations.

So the package of services that we brought together alongside all these partners was really this incredible push for us to kind of bring that back to all the other cities as well. So I really give a lot of credit to President Nez and Dr. Jill and our partners at the Center for American Indian Health because they said clearly, you know, this is not going to be enough for us to actually lower the rate and make sure that people are not getting sick, we need this entire package of services, which then sort of brings us back to Los Angeles and ensuring that again people have resources alongside their testing and their vaccinations.

MR. EDGERS: We as a country, we live blessed lives, and we sometimes think, oh, it's over there, and someone will take care of it, or the government will fly over and drop food. On a very basic level, explain to us why CORE is so essential to a relief effort in Haiti, for example, or why these NGOs are so important. And part two is‑‑you said in the beginning‑‑people can help not by sending shoes but by contributing. If someone is watching this today, tell them specifically what they can do to help in a crisis moment like this in Haiti.

MR. PENN: Yeah. I'll start on that, which is this. As Ann said, there are greater, in many ways, far greater challenges in this earthquake than 2010, just in terms of access of resources and personnel. So this is not one of those situations where we, as an organization in‑country, would ask for volunteer, a lot of volunteers and so on, while certainly there are needs for medical professionals.

But I think this is one of those times where immediately organizations like CORE need the resources to pull the trigger on projects to be able to move forward and be aggressive and get the job done with our Haitian partners.

MR. EDGERS: Sean, obviously, this is a different administration. I'm wondering, do you see an immediate impact on the ground, and when you're doing work, trying to get people vaccinated and tested, have you seen an immediate change, or are there things that our government is not doing that you say, boy, we could really use this, it would really help, and they're not as helpful as we're hoping?

MR. PENN: Well, for example, in Haiti, I know that the USS Arlington is on its way. I know that they've mobilized many Blackhawks and Chinooks as well as the Coast Guard aviation resources, but I think that right now in terms of‑‑to answer your question in terms of Haiti, I do believe that we should offer a stronger security force on the ground right now. And, of course, the Army Corps of Engineers can also be very helpful and may well be there for all I know.

In the United States, going back just for a second to reference the Navajo Nation, one of the lessons that we can take away from our experience in the Navajo Nation, our American experience, all of us in this country can celebrate what they teach us. You know, there is a traditional reverence for their elders, and in that, there was a great buy‑in, community buy‑in to not make this about identity politics or a rebel yell but to really care for their oldest and their youngest. So we want to see that happen. Haiti has never experienced an addiction to comfort. They've never had the supply for that addiction. We have so largely here in the United States, and I think now that we're facing these existential climate issues and all of the rest, it's going to be essential to look to those who have been resilient in those situations and spiritually resilient and found kindness towards each other in these kinds of hardest times.

On all of that, in terms of the shift of the administration, it's a radical improvement, a radical improvement. At the same time, we sit here today, we all know about what's happening in Afghanistan, in Haiti, in our own country, throughout the world with these things, and it's a challenge that I hope that they are‑‑"they," being the administration, are finding their footing and one foot in front of the other as we are seeking to do on a micro level.

To date, our feeling is that they have been responsive, and most appreciated was the immediate clarifying principles that finally happened once the Biden administration took office.

MR. EDGERS: Hey, look, we could talk to you two for hours, but you actually have things to do that are important. And so thank you so much for this conversation, a very important and timely one, and thank you for all you're doing. And, Ann, we'll be thinking of you, and we hope you're safe, and we appreciate what you're doing there in Haiti. Thank you.

MR. PENN: Thank you, Geoff.

MS. LEE: Thanks for having us.

MR. EDGERS: And, folks, to see about our upcoming programs, we have a robust schedule on Washington Post Live. Go to I’m Geoff Edgers, and have a great day.

[End recorded session]