New York State

How will the city’s most vulnerable weather the crisis?

Economic and health disparities create new challenges for New Yorkers amid the pandemic.

Dr. Oxiris Barbot, Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, alongside Mayor de Blasio.

Dr. Oxiris Barbot, Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, alongside Mayor de Blasio. Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Some people – including Gov. Andrew Cuomo – have described the coronavirus as an equalizer, transmitted to people despite class or race. But it increasingly seems that the pandemic may actually be exposing existing vulnerabilities. Black and Latino New Yorkers are dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white residents, and outbreaks have clustered on communities with higher poverty and a greater number of essential workers. 

“The underlying drivers that have contributed to health inequities that we were trying to address … have absolutely wreaked havoc during this public health emergency,” said Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of New York City’s health department, during City & State’s webinar on Tuesday. 

Black and Latino residents are disproportionately low-income, which means they are more likely to lack access to regular nutritious food, to face housing insecurity and other factors that worsen health outcomes. This means black and Latino communities see higher rates of chronic medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Most essential workers in New York City are also black or Hispanic, according to a report from the city comptroller’s office, which puts them at greater risk of exposure as well.

New York City put an emphasis on multilingual educational outreach on the virus through calls, mailings and social media, Barbot said. But New York City Councilman Francisco Moya, who represents one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the city, said better communication would’ve been key to mitigating the crisis – especially for the Latino community. 

“We needed to really get that information out much earlier,” he said. “And that's where the difference is, for me, in communities like ours.”

Given the disparities that have emerged from the outset of the health crisis, there are lingering concerns about how accessible potential treatments and vaccines will be in the future.

“One of the things the city is really leveraging, and lucky to have, is a robust system of public hospitals,” Barbot said, emphasizing that these hospitals offer care regardless of immigration status or insurance access. 

Health outcomes aren’t the only vulnerability being exposed by the crisis, however. Economic fallout and skyrocketing unemployment has led to unprecedented demand for food assistance – including among seniors who are at high risk during the pandemic. One of the New York City Department for the Aging’s meal delivery initiatives – which has since been transitioned into the city’s overall emergency food plan – saw demand for help jump up from 25,000 people a day to 44,000 within a week, the agency’s commissioner, Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, said. 

“We know that that demand and that need is going to be greater and continues to grow every day,” she said.

Loneliness has already led to physical and mental health challenges for older adults before the pandemic. And with many group settings where seniors congregate being closed, some are fearing a mental health crisis among the elderly. Senior centers are trying to fill the gaps with wellness checks by phone or video.

“The most difficult (part) is when you have to hang up, and they want to continue speaking,” said Anderson Torres, president and CEO of R.A.I.N. Total Care, which operates 13 seniors centers in the city, “because that perhaps may have been the only connection that they've had during the day in light of this isolation.”