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‘We don’t get help from anywhere’: Covid exposes inequality in crisis-hit New York neighborhood

The Guardian logo The Guardian 22/04/2021 Amanda Holpuch in New York

A year after New York City became the center of the global Covid-19 outbreak, the neighborhood considered at the time to be the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the pandemic remains in crisis – laying bare many of the economic fault lines exposed by the coronavirus.

Corona, Queens, a welcoming enclave for many of the city’s undocumented immigrants and home to many of the “essential” workers who kept New York running during the pandemic’s worst days, has had the highest number of infections and deaths in the city – and now has one of the lowest percentages of people vaccinated.

At least 37% of residents there have received one dose of the vaccine, according to city data. On the Upper East Side, home to the city’s grand museums, luxury boutiques and multimillion-dollar townhouses, more than 64% of residents have received their first dose.

Densely packed, Corona’s multi-family homes are among the most crowded in the city. In the past year, there were 40 eviction filings per 1,000 units, according to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a coalition of housing non-profits – 1,211 evictions in total. In Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, a neighborhood of gourmet coffee shops and craft beer breweries, landlords had sued 37 families altogether.

It’s no coincidence that New York depended on Corona families to deliver food, clean the subways and work in cramped restaurant kitchens while many New Yorkers stayed put. Like many such neighborhoods across the developed world, its residents were on the frontline, allowing their richer neighbors to shield themselves at home.

This disparity was obvious one year ago, when New York City was the global center of the Covid-19 outbreak. At the time, not-for-profits in Corona described to the Guardian how they acted as disaster relief agencies to feed families, connect people with doctors and speak with consulates to repatriate the deceased’s remains.

A year later, undocumented New Yorkers are still at high risk of contracting the virus, and are largely excluded from the federal economic stimulus benefits that have helped so many others weather the pandemic.

New York state, for the first time this month, agreed to try to shrink that gap by providing direct cash aid to the state’s undocumented population – after a year of families having to weigh the dangers of work in a pandemic with the need for food without any help from the government.

For Ciria Santiago, who has lived in Corona since 2005, this spring is certainly better than the last. When businesses shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic, her household of six suddenly had an income of zero: the three working-age people in her family were newly unemployed and were unable to obtain benefits because they are undocumented immigrants.

The Santiagos’ unemployment drought lasted five months. “We either paid rent or bought food,” said Santiago, who would wake up at 4am to wait five hours in line for the local food pantry to open because it was so crowded with demand.

Despite their concerns about Covid-19, her husband and nephew returned to work as a cook and delivery driver and dishwasher in July. It was too late for their landlord, who forced them to move in November because of earlier missed rent payments.

“It’s not just me. It’s the community that is going through this difficult situation,” Santiago told the Guardian, through an interpreter.

Like many mothers in the neighborhood, Santiago has stayed home while school is online, but she has found satisfaction as a volunteer at New Immigrant Community Empowerment (Nice), which helps immigrant workers in the city. “We’re happy here, but yes, we’re pressured with money, because we don’t get help from anywhere,” said Santiago, who is originally from Veracruz in Mexico.

Undocumented immigrants, including the estimated 50% to 75% who pay taxes, have largely not qualified for health, business and cash aid included in the federal stimulus packages. And 5.1 million US citizens or green card holders were excluded from the first round of stimulus payments as well because they filed their taxes with an undocumented person, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Some state and local governments have attempted to fill in the gaps. New York state this month agreed to provide up to $15,600 in one-time payments to undocumented immigrants who lost work during the pandemic. In the city, undocumented people can also access food assistance and the city’s low-cost or no-cost health program. Philanthropic groups are also providing financial aid to the city’s undocumented people.

But none of this answers the fundamental issue that undocumented people are in a stratified class from the rest of the city’s residents.

In her role as program director at Nice, Diana Moreno said she has yet to see “sustainable, systemic change” in how undocumented immigrants have been treated through the pandemic.

“These workers don’t feel like they have a choice: they have to go to work, in order to get to work, they have to take public transportation, and they have to be out and about in the city, and they are not being properly compensated or properly cared for,” Moreno said.

Moreno said the biggest issue Nice members face is that the US still does not have a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“We are not saying US citizens have had an easy time during this pandemic – we’ve all suffered extensively,” Moreno said. “But US citizens have access to a safety net, and yes, it is a faltering safety net, but it exists.”

The pandemic has also emphasized how a lack of permanent immigration status is a health threat.

The Center for Migration Studies released a report in late January that found that in Queens, the neighborhoods most at risk for poor health outcomes were the two combined community districts of South Corona/Elmhurst and North Corona/Jackson Heights. These are also the two sectors of Queens with the highest concentration of non-citizens – which includes undocumented people, green-card holders and people on temporary visas.

Undocumented people are not eligible for most health insurance programs, and are the largest group of people in the country ineligible for financial assistance to get healthcare coverage.

On Joe Biden’s first day in office, the president announced that he would try to secure a pathway to citizenship through Congress. It’s a popular goal Democrats and Republicans have attempted, and failed, to secure in the past two decades. Expectations are low that Biden’s bill will make it through the narrowly divided Congress, though Democrats are pursuing other legislative routes.

Until then, undocumented immigrants are uniquely vulnerable even when provisions are in place that should protect them, like the city’s pandemic eviction moratorium.

A Corona resident of 10 years, Nube, who asked for her last name not to be used because of her immigration status, was almost evicted. She and her husband lost work when the pandemic began and they couldn’t afford rent.

It gave Nube, 33, a flashback to eight years earlier, when she was evicted from a room she was renting with just five minutes’ warning. She had been paying someone for the room, but they hadn’t paid the apartment owner, who forced her out. “We were really afraid that this could happen to us again. But this situation was different because my husband wasn’t working, I wasn’t working,” she said, through an interpreter.

It was also different because of the eviction moratorium, which protects all residents of New York City. But Nube and her husband didn’t know about the protection at the time. Even if they had, housing advocates have described landlords threatening to call immigration authorities or use other forms of harassment.

The couple instead scrambled together money from a savings account they had in Ecuador, and by borrowing from friends and family. Today, the couple and their three children are just getting by with the income from Nube’s husband, who works in construction. “We live day to day,” she said.

Nube said food banks have been a crucial lifeline for the family, and that sometimes it can be difficult just to get toilet paper and other basic items, because they either don’t have the money for it or there is no availability in stores. Even though the couple can now pay rent, they are also spending money to pay back people they borrowed from last year.

A bright spot is that Nube and her husband have been able to get the first dose of the vaccine, despite the neighborhood having one of the lowest vaccination rates in the city.

Part of this low rate can be attributed to how much Covid-19 there has been in the neighborhood already – people may be less inclined to get the vaccine if they have already contracted the illness. Moreno at Nice said it had also been difficult for people to book appointments because of the scarcity of spaces available and the limited time working people have available to get one.

Epidemiologist Denis Nash said: “The vaccine delivery system has really been designed to perpetuate some of the inequities we’ve seen in transmission.”

Nash is one of the researchers leading the City University of New York’s group study on the spread of Covid-19. He said since the early phases of the pandemic, essential workers have been at higher risk than non-essential workers.

“Of all the different interventions and strategies and policies that we’ve come up with in different parts of the country, including New York City and New York state, we haven’t really identified strategies that work well for reducing disparities and protecting essential workers,” said Nash, executive director of Cuny’s Institute for Implementation Science in Population Health.

To help them, Nash explained, community transmission has to be kept at a minimum, but it has been unmitigated across most of the US. “That is really bad for essential workers,” Nash said.

And because essential workers will always be on the frontlines of an infectious disease outbreak, it’s crucial to identify strategies that actually reduce their risk of infection. Nash said: “If we don’t come up with strategies to help them or deal with that situation then I think we’re going to see the same situation repeated in the next pandemic.”

Francisco Moya, a New York City council member who represents, and was born and raised in, Corona, knew immediately that his community would be hard hit by the virus. When the local Elmhurst hospital was overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases, he became the first stop for people looking to donate PPE and money there. During those PPE deliveries, people would warn him not to breathe the air around the hospital.

a man standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: People wearing masks outside the Elmhurst hospital in Queens in March. Photograph: Angus Mordant/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian People wearing masks outside the Elmhurst hospital in Queens in March. Photograph: Angus Mordant/Getty Images

“It was almost like Chernobyl,” Moya said. “A bustling street where stores were boarded up and closed, there was not a soul on the street. And all you could hear was the sound of the ambulance.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, Moya has been sounding the alarm about Corona residents’ lack of access to food, internet, money for funerals, testing, vaccinations and language-specific public health resources. He has had several wins, including securing money for food banks and helping increase the city’s burial allowance, or money to help people cover the costs of death arrangements, but he said the problem is beyond people’s immediate needs.

“We can add more money to feed these families, but that’s just a stopgap measure,” Moya said. “We really have to address the socioeconomic disparity here and the services that don’t come to communities like Corona.”

A guide to resources for immigrants and the undocumented population in New York City can be found here, created by the non-profit news site Documented

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