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Op-Ed: Don’t Let Coronavirus Further Cuomo and de Blasio’s War on Our Communities

Zishun Ning Mar 26

COVID-19 is devastating our city like an invisible and deadly tornado. Small businesses are shutting down, while many workers are losing their jobs. Those on the frontline battling the virus or maintaining the essential functions of the city are not given enough protection to stay safe. With no end in sight, people are wondering how long they will be able to survive this pandemic.

Requests for help and mutual aid efforts are popping up. Healthcare workers have turned to social media to plead for masks, small businesses have started offering bonds and laid-off workers are using GoFundMe to pay rent. Grassroots groups are delivering food for at-risk populations, establishing relief funds for workers and helping to deliver protective gear for healthcare workers. While these efforts can help overcome short-term difficulties, they are not enough in the face of a disaster with such a long-lasting impact. 

We must not let COVID-19 allow our elected officials to get away with their past failures because they can now use the disease as a scapegoat. If we respond to their incompetent handling of the pandemic by focusing solely on mutual aid, we let them off the hook for their role in facilitating the crisis our communities faced before, during and will face again after the pandemic.

As part of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, Youth Against Displacement is joining the call to demand the city and state government take action to protect working people, and not use the pandemic to further displace our small businesses and community members. 

Our demands are as follows : 

  • Establish a disaster relief fund for workers whose livelihood and health are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Cut small business real estate taxes and rent. 
  • Establish health facilities for patients to easily get tested, quarantined and treated. 
  • Provide enough protective measures for healthcare workers to stay safe

The government should be directly responsible for protecting the people. So far, they have failed. The mayor, the governor and the president urge people to self-isolate and encourage healthcare workers to devote themselves to the fight. Trump supports giving a $1200 handout for each individual, and Cuomo and de Blasio make guarantees of unemployment benefits and paid sick leave for workers and no-interest loans for small businesses. But they know very well that these measures are not nearly enough to cover the expenses for the weeks to come. 

We would not need to fundraise for individuals’ rent bills if they had affordable places to live before the crisis. Mayor Bill de Blasio has instead, with his pro-developer rezoning plans, supported luxury high-rises, which drive up rents and real estate taxes in communities of color. Governor Andrew Cuomo allows bosses to get away with paying workers subminimum wages by not enforcing labor law. He could have signed the SWEAT bill to end wage theft last year, but because he refused, these workers are now even more vulnerable during this pandemic. In the case of home care workers, he legalized 24-hour shifts for only half the pay. When communities came up with solutions to stop displacement and wage theft, these politicians ignored their constituents, leaving them in crisis long before the outbreak.

With high rents and wage theft already in place when the pandemic hit, working people and small businesses are in a bad position to fight the virus. All the mayor and the governor can do is ask us to stay home and share the burden of survival? They might claim to be progressive by imposing a moratorium on evictions or pausing pro-developer rezonings, but their willingness to do so only signals their expectation to return to business as usual after the pandemic. 

Are we to cynically put our hope in the pandemic becoming more serious so that they are forced to actually become the progressives they pretend to be? Or should we, the community, be the ones to hold them accountable, for our lives and our future? 

Join us to demand the city and state take responsibility.

Zishun Ning is a community organizer and a member of Youth Against Displacement.

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