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New York City Must Take Action to Ensure the Most Vulnerable Survive the Pandemic

The city has created the structural conditions that have engendered disproportionately high rates of infection and death among its Black and Latinx residents.

People wait in line to receive free groceries on April 20 in Brooklyn.(Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

In late March, Black Youth Project 100-NYC, DecrimNY, and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration came together to create a mutual aid fund to help support Black New Yorkers who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We knew from the onset of this pandemic that Black folks would be the hardest hit because of the generations of institutional disregard for our communities: Black working class people, Black immigrants, Black trans and gender nonconforming people, and those in nontraditional economies are always further marginalized in times of crisis. When a former member of BYP100-NYC began receiving multiple requests for financial support from Black folks on social media, they reached out to us to figure out how we could organize to meet people’s needs. Soon after, we took to digital organizing and were able to raise close to $35,000 to redistribute to those who had reached out. 

To date, we have been able to assist 285 Black folks with those funds and be in solidarity with our Latinx siblings by donating to the LGBT Center Intercultural Collective Inc.’s Transgender Emergency Fund 101 in honor of Lorena Borjas, a trans Latina activist who recently passed away from COVID-19. But with each passing day, the need for cash relief and material supplies increases dramatically. As of April 21, we had 949 requests for aid and the requests are still coming in. As Black community organizers, we understood from the start that meeting just material needs was not enough. We needed to address the structural inequalities that hinder the Black and Latinx communities’ ability to survive this pandemic.

On April 12th, BYP100-NYC, with the support of more than 50 organizations and individual allies in New York City, drafted a series of demands for the city regarding the alarming impacts this pandemic has had on Black and brown New Yorkers. Preliminary data shows that Black and Latinx people make up 65 percent of COVID-19 cases in New York City and 61 percent of reported deaths. Videos of NYPD officers harassing, assaulting, and ticketing people for being out have been shared across social media. Trans and gender non-conforming folks are being denied life-saving medical treatment and are finding it increasingly difficult to access their prescriptions. And there have been multiple reports of New York City hospitals, particularly those servicing predominately Black and brown communities, being severely under-resourced

City officials have played an active role in creating the structural conditions that have brought about these disproportionately high rates of infection and death among its Black and Latinx residents. We don’t say this hyperbolically. Between 2003 and 2017, the city closed 16 hospitals and, in the last two decades, the state has thrown away 20,000 hospital beds. It should come as no surprise that these hospital closures have had a tremendous impact on poor communities of color across the city, and should now, highlighted by the devastating effects of COVID-19, clarify the city’s priorities. 

Just months ago, the city adopted an $8.7 billion plan to construct new jails in the very communities being hit hardest by this pandemic. It is quite telling that our government officials sat idly over the last two decades,allowing our health infrastructure to crumble and be outsourced to private entities, and then allocated billions toward the expansion of our carceral system. 

Moreover, the city has incessantly pushed for further privatization of public housing while the number of people sleeping in shelters increased by 60 percent in the last 10 years. Our officials have allowed about half of the luxury apartments built in Manhattan over the past five years to remain vacant, while more than 78,000 people sleep in overcrowded shelters or on the streets. They have failed to address this city’s housing crisis and have instead swept the issue aside by allowing police to further target, harass, and jail the poorest among us. 

Neglecting members of our communities in this way will only bolster our systems of inequality. Take, for example, the predicament that many sex workers find themselves in as our institutions fail them in this pandemic. Without economic and housing support, many have either lost their source of income or must continue engaging in sex work for survival, putting themselves at risk of exposure to COVID-19. Moreover, lockdowns globally have led to a shortage of latex condoms, making it harder for sex workers to access the supplies needed to stay healthy. By not providing relief for folks in nontraditional economies, we risk further spread of COVID-19 and risk perpetuating myriad other public health issues. From where we stand, it seems the city has not taken this into account. 

The pandemic seems to have only emboldened the city in its commitment to surveilling and locking up our communities. It has not ensured that all its residents can properly practice social distancing in safe, stable, and dignified housing. It has not addressed the rapid spread of the virus in its overcrowded and unsanitary jails. It has not taken steps to provide a safety net for sex workers, undocumented workers, domestic workers, street vendors, and all those who will not be included in the federal stimulus package. 

Instead, it has once again relied on police to solve an issue that policing cannot resolve. On April 1, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that former police commissioner James O’Neill will serve as COVID-19 senior adviser to the City of New York. In this role, O’Neill will manage and oversee the supply chain of medical equipment to all New York City hospitals. But as far as anyone knows, O’Neill has no background in public health or any expertise on pandemics. 

The only reason the city could possibly need two police commissioners in the midst of this pandemic is to expand its systems of surveillance and policing, further criminalizing Black and brown folks and leaving our communities without the resources we actually need to combat COVID-19. We’ve already seen evidence that it is doing just that. In recent weeks, the NYPD has engaged in aggressive policing tactics with the supposed intention of enforcing distancing. It has ticketed, issued summonses, and arrested people for ‘failing to practice social distancing.’ Videos of police officers harassing and assaulting folks, including seizing a young boy on a subway platform, have swept social media. Assaulting and jailing civilians runs counter to the practice of social distancing, and factoring in the astronomical rates of infection among members of the police department, it should be self-evident that increased policing only further propagates the spread of COVID-19. 

The city must take action to ensure that the most vulnerable among us survive this pandemic. It needs to address the structural conditions it has put in place that have disproportionatelyimpacted Black and brown communities, trans and gender non-conforming folks, immigrants, and the poor. It can start by having O’Neill step down from his role and instead appoint a qualified public health expert. It can release people from its jails. It can acknowledge that we cannot fight a virus with increased policing, surveillance, and incarceration, and instead invest in adequate housing, economic support, and better medical infrastructure. 

New York has a responsibility to its residents. Now, more than ever, we need to act and finally invest in our communities. We need to abandon the notion that police and prisons will solve our social issues. We need strong public health infrastructures, strong safety nets, and safe and secure housing for all. We need our leadership to ensure that Black and brown communities not only survive this crisis, but build lasting structures that prioritize our collective health and well-being. 

TS Candii is a Black transgender woman, sex worker, organizer, political activist, and public speaker. She is producing a documentary called “Policing Our Bodies” which has given her a creative way to share her life experiences. She is an organizer with DecrimNY and the Repeal the #WalkingWhileTrans Ban Coalition.

Darializa Avila Chevalier is an Afro Latina organizer serving as organizing chair for the New York City chapter of BYP100. She is a Ph.D. student of sociology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.