Racial inequality defines the epicenter of the coronavirus

Vivien Sweet

I live a 15-minute walk away from the nation’s epicenter of the coronavirus.
In Queens, four immigrant-majority neighborhoods—Jackson Heights, Corona, Elmhurst, and East Elmhurst—spanning seven square miles with a combined population of approximately 600,000 have recorded over 7,260 coronavirus cases, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Manhattan, with nearly triple that population, has about 10,860 cases.
In the aforementioned densely-packed, working-class neighborhoods, it does not come as a surprise that the individuals hardest hit by the coronavirus are Uber and taxi drivers, construction workers, waiters, and house cleaners. Yet many residents’ economic and housing circumstances prior to the outbreak have made the situation equally dire for non-essential workers. Those who are jobless are struggling to make ends meet at home, often in close quarters with sick family members. Those who are not are on the front lines of where the virus has caused the most destruction.
These unavoidable social conditions are only aggravated by the lack of viable health care resources in central Queens communities, a byproduct of the city’s pre-existing deficient support systems for immigrants. City officials from the Department of Health argue they have taken significant measures to prevent the spread of the virus in these immigrant enclaves, pointing to the widespread distribution of coronavirus fact sheets in 15 languages and the multilingual public service announcements on subway cars promoting social distancing.
What the city has failed to acknowledge is that once a resident contracts the virus, there are few options for them to seek medical support. Many immigrants—legal and undocumented alike—and other working-class families do not have health insurance and instead rely on public hospitals for basic procedures, even before the outbreak, according to the New York Times. Although public health guidelines have instructed the people to stay home and call their physician if they believe they have the virus, many residents do not have a regular physician. As a result, Elmhurst Hospital, with only 545 beds and a few dozen ventilators, has been subject to lines full of possible coronavirus patients spanning multiple blocks, according to the New York Times. Elderly residents, young adults, and children have died in the emergency room waiting for a bed.
However, the situation in Queens is not an isolated incident of how under-resourced minority communities are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, but rather it is indicative of the racial inequality in the health care system. In New York City, the death rate of black and Latino people who have contracted the coronavirus is twice the death rate of white people infected by the virus, according to the New York Times. Yet 75 percent of the city’s essential workers—such as grocery clerks, janitors and child care personnel, and bus and train operators—are people of color, according to a study by City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. Not only do many of these minorities lack a medical support system to protect themselves from the virus; they do not have the option to stay at home and abide by the rules of social distancing. Consequently, the cyclical nature of poverty will only continue to force those most vulnerable to the coronavirus to the front lines of the outbreak.
The overwhelming majority of the Horace Mann community is—quite literally—far removed from Queens; Riverdale is a one-and-a-half-hour subway ride away from even the outskirts of Queens. But for the five or so of us who call the most diverse borough in New York City our home, the irreparable wreckage that coronavirus has caused in our communities is devastating. In the church that I attend, located in the middle of Elmhurst, families are struggling to keep the coronavirus out of their homes. I had prayed and worshipped with those who have passed away from the virus. I have mourned for those who couldn’t secure a spot at Elmhurst Hospital in time.
As hardships continue for those living in central Queens these next couple of months, I encourage us to consider donating directly to the communities most afflicted by the coronavirus. The Action PAC’s C19 Help Squad, for instance, pairs volunteers who want to provide monetary assistance with individuals who need financial support in low-income neighborhoods for those who want to provide monetary assistance. For those interested in helping distribute medical supplies, the organization Direct Relief provides personal protection equipment to doctors and nurses in areas hardest hit by the coronavirus.
If providing financial aid is not an option, or if you’d prefer to help individuals directly, contact a public elementary school in your district and ask if there are any areas of technology that you might be able to help families out with. The New York City Department of Education plans on distributing WiFi-enabled iPads that will allow 300,000 students to learn remotely. Many families receiving iPads may be unfamiliar with applications such as Google Classroom and Google Meet that are being used in public schools, so IT departments may be under a lot of stress during this time.
In the midst of the only pandemic in our lifetimes, many of us are fortunate enough to safely stay at home. It is up to us to help those who can’t.