COVID-19 Hits NYC’s Black and Brown Working Class the Hardest

Issue 255.5

Derek Ludovici Apr 21, 2020

In the month since Gov. Andrew Cuomo instituted a stay-at-home order, New York City has taken on a different atmosphere. Once busy gridlocked streets now flow freely, and inside their homes, New Yorkers are learning how to adjust to life via their laptops, relying more on home delivery for goods and services. For many, the physical world is temporarily circumscribed, yet this is only made possible by an army of workers without the luxury to socially distance. In the Bronx, these workers and their families come from marginalized communities, where pre-existing vulnerabilities have exacerbated the crisis.   

Assatou Kone is one of the many essential workers for whom life has not paused. 

“It is stressful,” she says. “I was one of the people who supported shutting down the MTA to get this virus under control. Councilmember Mark Levine posted a hashtag that said shut down the MTA and I definitely supported it.“ 

On her commute, Kone must not only navigate the city but a deadly virus as well. Normally mundane choices such as where to stand are now perilous.

Without a complete shutdown, Kone, a political science major at City College who lives alone, has continued to work to pay her rent and tuition. Recently, with CUNY moving to distanced learning, she has had to install internet in her home. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to enroll in Optimum’s free student package and with assignments due, she added broadband to her monthly expenses. 

Living off the 6 Line near St. Lawrence Avenue, she commutes 50 minutes for her shifts as a manager at a large fast-food chain on the Upper West Side. The subway has a different atmosphere these days. Some subway cars have become de facto dormitories for the homeless, while workers fill other cars, unable to adhere to the mandated 6-feet social distance.

“There are people who will stand right next to you,” says Kone, who transfers from the 6 to the crosstown bus at 72nd Street, not only navigating the city but the deadly virus as well. Normally mundane choices such as where to sit or stand are now perilous. “You need to make a decision between the homeless laying in the other car or sitting next to somebody.”

Throughout her commute, Kone sees construction workers, healthcare staff and nonuniform essential workers, but something else sticks out to her about these straphangers. They are near uniformly black and brown. 

“I may be only see one white person a week,” she says.

While Kone has been fortunate to stay healthy, commuting with the mask and gloves her employer provides, many Bronxites have not been so lucky, dying at double the rate of any other borough. 

The city has begun releasing statistics on race and COVID-19 infections after calls from advocates to do so. They show that black and Latino New Yorkers are disproportionately testing positive for the disease and are dying at double the rate of other racial groups. In response to the racial disparities, the scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor recently changed the adage “When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia” to “When white America catches novel coronavirus, black Americans die.”

In attempting to explain these disparities, Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged African Americans to “stop drinking, smoking or doing drugs to protect those who are most vulnerable.”  

The hardest stricken areas of New York tell a different story: pre-vulnerabilities to the virus are directly connected to a history of environmental racism and economic inequality.  

“One of the large misconceptions is that people of color are more susceptible to this virus,” says Earle Chambers, associate professor of family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “There are conditions like the inability to socially distance, underlying health conditions and health risks that make communities of color more at risk for morbidity and mortality.” 

The Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development released an interactive map suggesting some of the social determinants affecting New York City during the pandemic. Neighborhoods hardest hit by the virus also contain the largest populations of service workers, rent-burdened households and people of color.  These communities, like the one Kone lives in, saw the smallest decreases in subway ridership the week of March 6 to March 13. This is compared to stations in some of the most affluent neighborhoods seeing a decrease as high as 62 percent.  

Chambers points out that in the Bronx, “You have overcrowding. You have housing instability. Service workers have an inability to socially distance.  It becomes very hard when you rely on mass transit or when you live in very crowded apartment buildings. You can’t be separate from people in those kinds of circumstances.”

Emmanuel Pardilla, a volunteer organizer for the South Bronx Tenants Movement, which operates in the Mott Haven area, sees much of this in buildings where his group is active.   

“For some of these tenants, it’s not even as safe being at home as it is to be outside if we are talking about respiratory issues, illnesses, etc.,” he says. “People are getting sick in their homes.  That has always been the norm. That has always been the situation of housing” 

Pardilla places much of the blame for this crisis on the city and state’s response: “I’ve seen a lot of irresponsibility by the government, telling people to stay home, but there has been little to no effort to address the economic health of working-class, oppressed families here in the Mott Haven area and the whole city. “ 

Mott Haven, along with other communities in the South Bronx have some of the highest housing burdens in the city, with households frequently paying over 30 percent of their income in rent. In some neighborhoods, rent burdens of over 50 percent of household income are the norm. South Bronx residents have some of the lowest rates of labor participation in the city.

It was this issue that drove tenant organizers to push for an eviction moratorium and Pardilla and other organizers are now calling for a rent moratorium and for the Rent Guidelines Board to freeze rent increases.

Mott Haven has been at the forefront of gentrification in the borough, with developers trying to rebrand the neighborhood as ‘Downtown Bronx.’  Housing activists are quick to connect this to the public health crisis. 

“If we want to look at health and gentrification, let’s look at these landlords and how predatory they are,” says Pardilla. “They aren’t doing their part in repairing people’s apartments. They are not doing their part in repairing people’s buildings. They are relying on people leaving and exiting their buildings and ultimately exiting their communities.”

Fear and uncertainty are a common sentiment amongst neighbors in these communities, say Lisa Ortega, an organizer with Take Back the Bronx. 

“The hallways of our buildings have always been a place of convening, whether to talk shit about something or to complain about services in our building or what pantries are giving out what. They’ve always been a hub of information,” says Ortega. These days, tenants are saying “‘What are we going to do about this rent?’” and “‘Our landlord is really relentless.’ Those that work are concerned too, their hours are getting cut and some have just gotten laid off. My son-in-law just got laid off.”

Ortega is afraid for many in her community that do not have cell phones and are not plugged into mutual aid networks, who do not know where to turn for help.  Yet she also sees the potential to leave this crisis in a better position. 

“It’s a horrible thing to say, but it takes these kinds of things to propel people into action,” she says. “Having their back up against the wall and at rock bottom and having that fear really does propel people to say ‘God damn it, I’ve got nothing else to lose, I better fucking fight.’ So they become politicized.”

Troubles at Grace Dodge

North of Mott Haven, along the 4 and B/D subway lines, a central axis where service workers are contracting Covid-19, is Crotona International High School, which shares the Grace Dodge campus with two other schools. Sitting north of the Cross-Bronx Expressway the school serves some of the poorest students in the city. Only 35 percent of teachers at Crotona International have more than three years experience. A high attrition rate amongst faculty and staff is to blame, according to teachers.

As one of the first schools to have a confirmed case of COVID-19, Crotona serves as an example of how racial and economic disparities follow children through their youth. The Morris Heights Health Center, a non-profit on the campus, acts as the primary care facility for most of the students and specifically caters to recent immigrants, many of whom do not have health insurance.

Mallika Godvidan, a member of Take back the Bronx and a medical doctor, says the effects of environmental racism can be seen at an early age. “By the time you see a [newborn] kid in the clinic, so much of their health has already been determined,” says Godvidan. “Did their mom have access to prenatal care? What type of environment did they live in? What kind of social supports did they live in? It’s extremely hard, especially for the new immigrants.”

Crotona International sits in a community district that rates 3.11 out of 10 on the American Human Development Index. The area has a lofty childhood-asthma rate and ranks third for lower respiratory deaths in the city. It has the highest frequency of adult diabetes and the lowest health insurance rates — 22 percent in both categories. 

Housing insecurity is a major problem for Crotona International students. The community has the city’s highest rate of childhood homelessness, 37.6 per 1,000, and the third-highest rate in the city of families entering homeless shelters. Teachers at Crotona, who spoke to The Indypendent on condition of anonymity, estimate that around half of their students live in temporary housing. 

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 at Crotona occurred on Thursday, March 12; however, the administration failed to follow its own policy and close the school for 24 hours. Class ran the next day. With a growing call for a mass sickout over that weekend, Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled school and his Department of Education began the transition to online learning. This slow response, led to eight confirmed cases of faculty and staff members contracting the virus, with more showing symptoms and receiving doctors’ notes to quarantine.

All teachers The Indypendent spoke with, eight in total, blame the schools principal and the DOE. “This speaks to how the virus and [the negligence] have grown, not only for our school, but in the Bronx,” one said. “We have the district with the highest rate of poverty. Our kids come with so many issues and we have the worst leadership. Why does the Bronx deserve the worst leadership?”

“We are teachers and we are putting other lives at risk doing this thing,” another said. “But we are always coming in for these kids. The whole point is, if we are failing at the basis of keeping them safe and keeping our communities safe and making sure education is happening, we are failing in this crisis. We didn’t keep them safe. We didn’t keep each other safe. And we are failing to make sure their education is there”

The transition to online teaching exposed the inequalities in the school system. Teachers at Crotona, skeptical that the IPads the DOE promised would be delivered on time, began distributing the school’s own computers to select students. They discovered that many of the school’s Chromebooks were broken. In total, during the first week of online instruction, only one in five students had access to the technology necessary to learn online.

“[We gave computers] to the ten students who had access to internet,” one instructor recalls. “Many only have access to the internet through their mobile phones and they didn’t have any other device at home.”

The surrounding area has some of the lowest levels of household broadband connections in the city, as well as lowest levels of households containing at least one computer. Many teachers have given out their personal phone numbers so they can contact their students. Approximately 15 percent of one of the teacher’s students are still waiting for their IPads to arrive.

“Throughout those two weeks, we were trying to troubleshoot how to use the hotspot on their devices. How to call Optimum and set up the free internet they were promoting. Most of us were unsuccessful in doing that,” Crotona teacher said.

The transition has been hard for many of these students. Many live in cramped living quarters, where the bathroom is the only private space available to log into the virtual classroom. There is also a learning curve for these students. 

“Some students who don’t know how to use Zoom or Google will call a friend and they will put the phone to the computer so their peers can hear.” 

Teachers have also discovered that they do not have working numbers for many of their students’ households.   

All of these struggles have begun to take a toll on the students: “Our kids have been shutting down. They don’t want to talk about these things. They are afraid. They are undocumented. They are ashamed of the conditions they live in. They don’t want to talk about it so they just shut off,” another teacher said. “I had a kid say ‘Miss, what am I going to wake up for?’”

The outbreak and the transition to online learning has taken its toll on the teachers as well. 

“I am participating and being complicit in a system that makes sure kids stay the way they are,” said another teacher. “By the time they are in 11th grade, they know this is it, this is their life and that no cares. And the only grownups they feel that care are us. Then they see us being hopeless and helpless in the system because anything we do can have repercussion on our livelihood, I don’t want that”

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