COVID-19 DISPARATE IMPACT ON COMMUNITIES OF COLOR

CITY COUNCIL HOLDS HISTORIC REMOTE HEARING

AFRICAN-AMERICANS AND LATINOS TWICE AS LIKELY TO DIE FROM VIRUS AS WHITES

COUNCILMEMBER RITCHIE TORRES: POVERTY AT THE ROOT OF DISPARITY

City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, Chair of the Oversight & Investigations Committee, joins MetroFocus to discuss the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on the city’s communities of color. Torres recently led a historic hearing to get at the root of the racial disparity, encompassing everything from the prevalence of pre-existing conditions among these communities, to the effects that pollution, food access, and lack of affordable housing have had on economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. According to Torres, the hearing, which consisted of over 8 hours of expert testimony, was one of the longest in City Council history.

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Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

Aired on May 4, 2020. 

TRANSCRIPT

> WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS,' I AM JACK FORD.

AS THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC HAS CONTINUED ITS RAMPAGE THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY, WE'VE BECOME AWARE OF A VERY TROUBLING FACT, AND THAT IS THAT ITS IMPACT HAS BEEN MUCH MORE SEVERE UPON COMMUNITIES OF COLOR.

IN NEW YORK, WHICH HAS THE HIGHEST NUMBER OF CONFIRMED CASES AND THE HIGHEST NUMBER OF DEATHS, THE CHANCES OF DEATH FOR BLACKS AND LATINOS IS TWICE AS HIGH AS IT IS FOR WHITES, AND THE NUMBERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY ARE SIMILAR.

SO WHY IS THAT HAPPENING AND WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT?

WELL, IN ORDER TO TAKE A GOOD HARD LOOK AT THAT, LAST WEEK THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL HELD A REMOTE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE HEARING TO EXAMINE THE CAUSES OF THIS DISPARITY AND TO TALK ABOUT WHAT CAN BE DONE.

AND TO JOIN US NOW TO TALK ABOUT ALL OF THAT AS PART OF OUR CHASING THE DREAM INITIATIVE ON POVERTY AND OPPORTUNITY IN AMERICA, WE ARE PLEASED TO JOIN, AS WE ALWAYS ARE THE CHAIR OF THE COMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS, BRONX CITY COUNCIL MEMBER RITCHIE TORRES.

IT IS ALWAYS NICE TO HAVE YOU HERE WITH US.

LET ME START ASKING HOW YOU'RE DOING BECAUSE LAST TIME YOU JOINED US, YOU HAD JUST BEEN DIAGNOSED YOURSELF WITH COVID-19.

HOW ARE YOU FEELING, AND HOW WAS THAT WHOLE PROCESS FOR YOU?

THANKFULLY, I'M DOING WELL.

YOU KNOW, FOR ABOUT A WEEK OR TWO I HAD A FEVER, COUGH, MANAGEABLE SYMPTOMS.

I MOSTLY SLEPT THROUGH THEM.

YOU KNOW, SINCE I HAVE A HISTORY OF ASTHMA, I WAS CAREFULLY MONITORING MY BREATHING, BUT THANKFULLY I HAD NO SHORTNESS OF BREATH, NO TROUBLE BREATHING.

YOU KNOW, I HAVE, BY ALL APPEARANCES, A SUCCESSFUL RECOVERY.

WE ARE CERTAINLY GLAD TO HEAR THAT, AND IT'S ALWAYS A GOOD MESSAGE COMING FROM SOMEBODY SUCH AS YOURSELF WHO'S IN THE PUBLIC EYE WHO SAYS HERE'S WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO, DO THE RIGHT THINGS, AND HOPEFULLY WE'LL GET BACK TO WHERE WE NEED TO BE BOTH INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A GROUP.

TALKING ABOUT WHERE WE NEED TO BE, HAVE YOU BEEN SURPRISED BY THE NUMBERS HEAR, BY THIS ENORMOUS DISPARITY IN TERMS OF THE LIKELIHOOD OF DEATH FOR MEMBERS OF THE BLACK AND LATINO COMMUNITIES AS OPPOSED TO THE WHITE COMMUNITY?

AS YOU POINTED OUT, COVID-19 HAS BEEN DISPROPORTIONATELY DEADLIER IN COMMUNITIES OF COLOR.

IT'S HARDLY A SHOCK GIVEN THE HISTORY OF THE COUNTRY, BUT IT'S DEEPLY ALARMING.

YOU KNOW, IT'S WORTH POINTING OUT THAT COVID-19 AFFECTS ALL OF US, BUT IT AFFECTS US UNEVENLY.

COMMUNITIES OF COLOR, PLACES LIKE THE BRONX, THE LOWEST INCOME COMMUNITIES TEND TO BE THE HARDEST HIT.

YOU KNOW, EVEN THOUGH MANHATTAN, FOR EXAMPLE, HAS A SUBSTANTIALLY LARGER POPULATION THAN THE BRONX, THE BRONX HAS A SUBSTANTIALLY HIGHER DEATH RATE, YOU KNOW, WHEN IT COMES TO THE AGE ADJUSTED DEATH RATES, AFRICAN-AMERICANS AND LATINOS HAVE TWICE THE RISK OF DYING FROM COVID-19 AND HAVE DISPROPORTIONATELY HIGHER RATES OF INFECTION AND HOSPITALIZATION.

LET'S TALK ABOUT WHY THAT IS.

YEAH.

ALL RIGHT?

AND THEN I WANT TO GET TO YOUR COMMITTEE HEARINGS, WHAT CAME OUT OF THEM, AND WHAT DO YOU THINK MIGHT MOVING FORWARD OCCUR AS A CONSEQUENCE.

BUT I KNOW YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT A NUMBER OF SITUATIONS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO THIS, AND ONE OF THE THINGS YOU TALK ABOUT IS HEALTH CONDITIONS.

YES.

AND THE IMPACT THAT HAS.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?

SO ALMOST ALL THE COVID-19 FATALITIES HAVE AT LEAST ONE COMORBIDITY.

THE TWO MOST COMMON COVID-19 COMORBIDITIES ARE HYPERTENSION AND DIABETES.

THE RATES OF HYPERTENSION ARE THREE TIMES HIGHER IN THE SOUTH BRONX THAN IN THE FINANCIAL DISTRICT IN MANHATTAN.

THE RATES OF DIABETES ARE MORE THAN FIVE TIMES HIGHER IN THE SOUTH BRONX THAN IN THE FINANCIAL DISTRICT OF MANHATTAN.

SO THE COMMUNITIES THAT HAVE THE GREATEST PREVALENCE OF PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS LIKE DIABETES, HYPERTENSION, CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE, ARE AT FAR HIGHER RISK OF DYING OR BECOMING SERIOUSLY ILL FROM COVID-19.

WHAT -- I KNOW THIS IS A FAIRLY COMPLICATED QUESTION, BUT WHY ARE WE FINDING THAT THOSE COMORBIDITY FACTORS ARE SO MORE PREVALENT IN A COMMUNITY SUCH AS YOURS IN THE BRONX?

LOOK, THERE'S NO SINGLE CAUSE, BUT HERE ARE A FEW FACTORS.

YOU KNOW, IF YOU LIVE IN A COMMUNITY -- SO HARVARD UNIVERSITY CONDUCTED A STUDY SHOWING A CLOSE CORRELATION BETWEEN POLLUTION AND COVID-19 MORBIDITY AND MORTALITY, SO IF YOU LIVE IN A COMMUNITY LIKE THE SOUTH BRONX OF HIGH POLLUTION OR IF YOU LIVE IN HOUSING CONDITIONS OF MOLD AND MILDEW, LEAKS AND LEAD AND RODENT INFESTATION, THEN YOU'RE BREATHING IN TOXINS THAT WILL CAUSE RESPIRATORY DISEASE.

YOU'RE BREATHING IN TOXINS THAT WILL PLACE YOU AT GREATER RISK OF COVID-19 MORBIDITY AND MORTALITY.

FURTHER MORE, IN PLACES LIKE THE BRONX, THERE'S OFTEN A LACK OF ACCESS TO FRESH FOOD.

THESE COMMUNITIES ARE FOOD DESERTS, AND SO FOOD, THE KIND OF FOOD THAT YOU EAT, IS A FACTOR IN COVID-19.

WE TALKED --

UNFORTUNATELY, IN AMERICA, THE QUALITY OF THE FOOD YOU EAT, THE QUALITY OF THE WATER YOU DRINK, THE QUALITY OF THE AIR YOU BREATHE OFTEN DEPENDS ON YOUR ZIP CODE.

YEAH.

AND THAT'S A VERY DISTURBING FACT.

WE WERE TALKING ABOUT HEALTH CONDITIONS.

HOW ABOUT ECONOMIC CONDITIONS AND HOW THEY CONTRIBUTE TO THIS DISPARITY?

LOOK, I WOULD MAKE THE CASE THAT THE ROOT CAUSE OF ALL THESE DISPARITIES, WHETHER IT'S DISPARITIES IN EDUCATION, HOUSING, FOOD ACCESS, TRANSIT ACCESS, WHATEVER THE ISSUE IS IS POVERTY.

I THINK WHEREVER YOU HAVE RACIALLY CONCENTRATED POVERTY YOU TEND TO HAVE WORSE SOCIAL OUTCOMES IN EVERY ARENA OF LIFE, AND SO YOU NOTICE THAT THE COMMUNITIES THAT HAVE THE HIGHEST RATES OF POVERTY ARE THE HARDEST HIT, HAVE THE HIGHEST INCIDENCE OF COVID-19.

THAT'S NOT AN ACCIDENT, THAT'S A CONSEQUENCE OF RACIALLY CONCENTRATED POVERTY.

WE'VE ALSO SEEN IN TERMS OF THE WORKPLACE CONDITIONS AND THE POPULATION THAT IS SO HEAVILY INVOLVED IN THE CATEGORY OF ESSENTIAL WORKERS --

YES.

-- HERE, HOW DOES THAT ALL REFLECT UPON THESE DISPARITY FIGURES THAT WE'RE FINDING?

SO COMMUNITIES OF COLOR ARE OVERREPRESENTED IN THE ESSENTIAL WORK FORCE, WHETHER IT'S LOW WAGE WORK IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR OR THE PUBLIC WORK FORCE.

THE COVID -- THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 HAS ESSENTIALLY SPLIT THE WORK FORCE INTO TWO, RIGHT?

THERE WERE THOSE WHO HAVE THE LUXURY OF STAYING AT HOME, TELEWORKING FROM HOME, AND THEN THERE ARE ESSENTIAL WORKERS WHO HAVE TO RISK THEIR LIVES ON THE FRONT LINES SO THAT THE REST OF US CAN SAFELY SHELTER AT HOME.

IF YOU'RE AN ESSENTIAL WORKER, IF YOU'RE A HEALTH CARE WORKER WHO IS SURROUNDED BY INFECTED PATIENTS WITHOUT SUFFICIENT PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT, THEN YOU FACE AN INFINITELY HIGHER RISK OF COVID-19 INFECTION.

LET'S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT CAME OUT OF YOUR COMMITTEE HEARING.

AS I MENTIONED, IT WAS DONE REMOTELY.

IT'S THE COMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS THAT YOU CHAIR.

WHAT WERE YOU ABLE TO GLEAN FROM THE -- FROM THE HEARINGS?

WHAT WAS LEARNED, DO YOU THINK, THAT CAN BE HELPFUL, ESPECIALLY IN TERMS OF MOVING FORWARD?

SO AS YOU POINTED OUT, YESTERDAY WE HELD A HEARING EXAMINING THE RACIALLY DISPROPORTIONATE IMPACT OF COVID-19.

WE HEARD EIGHT HOURS OF TESTIMONY MAKING IT ONE OF THE LONGEST HEARINGS THE CITY COUNCIL HAS EVER HELD IN THE HISTORY OF THE LEGISLATURE.

I THINK WHAT WE'VE COME TO REALIZE IS THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 AFFECTS EVERY ASPECT OF OUR LIVES.

IT'S NOT ONLY A PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS.

IT'S AN EMPLOYMENT CRISIS, AN EDUCATIONAL CRISIS, A MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS.

THERE'S BEEN A SPIKE IN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, SO WE HAVE TO ADDRESS MULTIPLE CRISES AT ONCE IN ORDER TO FULLY RECOVER FROM COVID-19 AND ADDRESS THE ROOT CAUSES OF RACIAL DISPARITIES IN AMERICAN SOCIETY.

YOU KNOW, THERE'S A SENSE IN WHICH OUR CITY AND OUR COUNTRY HAS A COMPROMISED SOCIAL IMMUNE SYSTEM, AND THE COMPROMISED SOCIAL IMMUNE SYSTEM OF AMERICA HAS LEFT COMMUNITIES OF COLOR ESPECIALLY VULNERABLE TO THE WORST IMPACTS OF COVID-19.

AGAIN, WE'RE SPEAKING WITH NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL MEMBER RICHARD TORRES WHO IS THE CHAIR OF THIS COMMITTEE HE JUST DESCRIBED TO US AS TAKING A LOOK AT THE ROOT CAUSES OF THESE DISPARITIES.

CAN I MENTION ONE MORE FACTOR?

PLEASE DO BECAUSE I WANTED TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT THESE FACTORS AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE.

AFFORDABILITY IS A CRISIS.

AS THE CITY BECOMES LESS AND LESS AFFORDABLE, THERE ARE MORE AND MORE PEOPLE DOUBLING UP AND TRIPLING UP IN OVERCROWDED APARTMENTS, AND SO THE AFFORDABILITY IS CREATING OVERCROWDED HOMES THAT HAVE BECOME PETRI DISHES FOR THE SPREAD OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE.

YOU KNOW, WE OFTEN TELL PEOPLE TO STAY AT HOME AND PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING, BUT IF YOU'RE A RESIDENT OF AN OVERCROWDED APARTMENT, YOU HAVE NO MEANS OF PRACTICING SOCIAL DISTANCING.

IF YOU'RE A FRONT LINE WORKER RIDING IN A CROWDED SUBWAY, YOU HAVE NO MEANS OF PRACTICING SOCIAL DISTANCING, SO SOME OF THE PUBLIC HEALTH GUIDANCE THAT HAS BEEN GIVEN IGNORES THE LIVED REALITY OF MANY LOW INCOME NEW YORKERS.

SO I GUESS THAT GETS US TO OUR NEXT QUESTION, WHICH IS, ALL RIGHT, WHAT DO WE DO?

I MEAN, YOU'VE ARTICULATED SOME OF THE REASONS HERE, SOME OF THE CAUSES FOR THESE FRIGHTENING NUMBERS, THIS FRIGHTENING DISPARITY.

YOU HAD THE HEARINGS.

WHAT NOW CAN THE CITY DO TO START DOING IMMEDIATELY AND CERTAINLY TO GET IN PLACE IN THE EVENT THAT THIS VIRUS COMES BACK AT SOME POINT IN TIME SO THAT WE CAN PROTECT THESE COMMUNITIES OF COLOR?

LOOK, THERE'S NO SINGLE CAUSE, AND SO THERE'S CERTAINLY NO SINGLE MAGIC BULLET.

JUST TO SPEAK BROADLY, YOU KNOW, IN THE INDUSTRIALIZED WORLD, THE UNITED STATES IS THE ONLY COUNTRY THAT FAILS TO PROVIDE A COMPREHENSIVE SOCIAL SAFETY NET, THAT FAILS TO PROVIDE UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE, PAID SICK TIME, CHILD CARE, SO WHAT WE DESPERATELY NEED IN THE UNITED STATES IS THE KIND OF COMPREHENSIVE SOCIAL SAFETY NET THAT EXISTS ELSEWHERE IN THE INDUSTRIALIZED WORLD, PARTICULARLY IN WESTERN EUROPE.

YOU KNOW, MORE SPECIFICALLY, WE SHOULD HAVE PROGRAMS IN PLACE AIMED AT DRIVING DOWN THE RATES OF POLLUTION IN VEHICLES, IN BUILDINGS, IN POWER PLANTS, AND POLICIES IN PLACE THAT EXPAND ACCESS TO SUPERMARKETS, FRESH FOOD, THE COMBINATION OF CLEAN AIR AND FRESH FOOD ACCESS WOULD HAVE A REAL IMPACT IN DRIVING DOWN THE PREVALENCE OF PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS IN COMMUNITIES OF COLOR.

BUT AGAIN, THAT'S ONLY PART OF THE SOLUTION.

YOU KNOW, THIS IS A FAR-REACHING PROBLEM THAT'S GOING TO REQUIRE FAR-REACHING SOLUTIONS.

THE NEXT QUESTION FOR YOU HERE, WHAT MESSAGE CAN YOU GIVE TO NOT JUST YOUR CONSTITUENTS BUT PEOPLE IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK, SOMEBODY WHO HAS NOW SUFFERED THROUGH THIS VIRUS, CONTRACTED COVID.

MOVING OUT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF IT AND ALSO IS LOOKING AT ALL OF THESE ISSUES THAT WE'VE TALKED ABOUT HERE, WHAT'S A MESSAGE THEY CAN GIVE TO FOLKS?

I AM OPTIMISTIC THAT WE WILL EMERGE STRONGER AND MORE RESILIENT FROM THE CRISIS.

YOU KNOW, OUT OF CRISIS COMES OPPORTUNITY, AND WE HAVE A HISTORIC OPPORTUNITY TO BUILD A MORE DECENT SOCIETY THAT PROTECTS EVERY NEW YORKER, THAT PROTECTS EVERY AMERICAN, AND I HOPE WE ARE WISE ENOUGH TO SEIZE THE MOMENT.

COUNCIL MEMBER RITCHIE T TORRES, WE ARE ALWAYS PLEASED WHEN WE GET A CHANCE TO CHAT WITH YOU.

ESPECIALLY PLEASED TO HEAR THAT YOU ARE DOING WELL.

THANK YOU.

RECOVERING FROM THIS AND THAT YOU ARE WORKING, YOUR COMMITTEE AND CITY COUNCIL WORKING ON ALL OF THESE ISSUES.

OUR THANKS TO YOU AS ALWAYS FOR JOINING US, AND WE'LL PLAN ON TALKING WITH YOU AGAIN SOON, ALL RIGHT?

THANK YOU SO MUCH.

ALL RIGHT, RITCHIE, TAKE CARE.

TAKE CARE.

BE WELL.

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