Why we must prioritize working class communities like Queens in COVID-19 response

Art by eman wasef

I was born and raised in Queens, NY. And so it is heart wrenching to watch the way the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting our Queens communities. And with each passing siren, I imagine an ambulance rushing a family member, alone, into hospitals. As I write this there are already over 10,000 cases in Queens, the highest number of all boroughs in NYC. In what political leaders are calling “the epicenter of the epicenter,” Elmhurst Hospital is at capacity with haunting images from the site circulating across the globe. So why is it that of all places in NYC that the situation in Queens is so dire? There are several maps and data sets that can help us understand how the outcomes have been the way they are.

For one, Queens is made up of several working class and low income communities that are on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic. Immigrants represent close to half of the borough’s population, with 69% of them being self-employed. The borough also accounts for 58% of all transportation jobs in the city. This means that many of the front-line workers-like bodega owners, store clerks, EMTs, drivers, and deliverers- live in Queens. And like many other New Yorkers, but especially because we live in an outer borough, we take the subway to get to work. With the Subway service cut by a quarter, many still are exposed and in close proximity to other riders when they are in commute.

Second, the economic vulnerability of many Queens residents puts them at risk of contracting the virus as they continue to engage in informal market activity to sustain their households. Beyond essential workers, many families in Queens are dependent on a consistent income and hold several jobs. In some neighborhoods in Queens, poverty rates reach up to 22%, with many families living paycheck to paycheck. And like over 40% of Americans across the country, 64% of residents in Elmhurst, a Queens neighborhood on the frontlines of the pandemic, do not have enough savings to cover even three months of household expenses. To further underscore this point, a new city map showing percent of patients testing positive for coronavirus by ZIP code suggests the poorest New Yorkers are hardest hit by the pandemic.

Third, plenty of guidance has requested that individuals do their best to work from home, suggesting that working from home is truly the only way to “curb the curve.” For many working class and low income people, working from home is not an option. In fact, research shows that among the American workforce, just 16.2% of Hispanic and 19.7% of black Americans can work from home, as opposed to 30% of whites. This means that many communities of color in Queens will likely not have the option to work from home. As a result, many families will have to put their lives at risk to provide for their families, further exposing themselves to the virus.

Fourth, Queens communities live in highly dense arrangements making social distancing virtually impossible. Two of the most highly dense neighborhoods in NYC are in Queens: Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. And 62% of homes in some Queens neighborhoods are rent burdened, so it is not uncommon for many families to live with relatives and friends to make ends meet. This means that if an individual contracts the virus and is asymptomatic, they can put close to half a dozen people at risk overnight. Staying home in overcrowded, dim apartment complexes for hours on end is not comfortable, which is also why it is common for many neighborhood communities to leverage outside spaces like parks and front stoops. Use of public space, when home spaces are not suitable, continues to perpetuate the spread of the virus.

In order to effectively curb the spread of COVID-19, it is important to recognize and explore the realities of working class immigrant communities, like those in Queens, NY. Otherwise, we will continue to see the most economically and socially marginalized be most impacted by the virus. This will have long term negative economic impact and further exacerbate income and health inequalities across communities in NYC and across the globe. Local, national governments and multilateral institutions must create more nuanced guidance around “social distancing” and more effective protocol to protect the health of our most essential workers and community members.

Here are a list of organizations on the frontlines that you can support.

gender justice organizer and entrepreneur // founder of malikah.org // @rabdelhamid