The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, but society does — and the results in the U.S. are deadly


On the day nearly 800 people died of COVID-19 in New York state, Levan Bryant showed up as usual to supervise the night shift collecting garbage from grocery stores and hospitals. 

“I’m just grateful to be working still, and making money, because if we don’t come to work, who will pick up the hospital trash?” he said, standing outside a marshalling depot in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

“Hey, bring your bottle,” he hollered at a truck driver, handing off a spray bottle of bleach, a mask and gloves, as he made sure the drivers had some protection against the coronavirus.

Action Environmental Services, a private sanitation company in New York, has had to lay off about 40 workers since the city went into lockdown. A 37-year-old worker in the Bronx died from COVID-19 last week, said Stephen Thompson, president of Laborers Local Union 108.

“The men are very nervous about doing the job out here,” he said. “Picking up hospital garbage is pretty nasty and they worry about bringing [the virus] home to their families.”

Sanitation workers empty bins full of bags of soiled gowns and other garbage at a New York hospital. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Coronavirus may have appeared to be the great equalizer, but emerging patterns in the U.S. suggest the virus is proving deadlier for black people and Latinos than other groups. 

Essential workers, many from diverse lower-income neighbourhoods in New York and other cities, are more exposed to the threat than people who are able to stay home. And underlying inequalities in accessing health care may make them even more susceptible, as COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, is particularly severe for those with underlying medical conditions.

“Everyone says that this virus doesn’t discriminate, and in a biological sense, that’s true,” said Mark Levine, a New York councillor and chair of the city’s health committee. “But society discriminates.”

WATCH | A grocery worker in the Queens borough of New York City talks about the risks of doing his job:

CBC’s Susan Ormiston talks to a grocery worker in the Queens borough of New York City about the risks he’s taking on the job. 1:28

That’s clear, he said, when you look at problems such as crowded housing and unequal access to health care in lower-income communities.

“Every group of people that’s doing essential work in this city is displaying very high rates of staff out sick with coronavirus.”

In the 12 states reporting race and ethnicity data about the outbreak, black residents were found to be 2.4 times more likely to die of COVID-19, according to the APM Research Lab, a public policy research group. 

In New York City specifically, more Latino and black residents are dying of the illness than white or Asian residents, according to figures released by New York’s health department, which cautions that the death statistics are not comprehensive.

‘Everybody is petrified,’ says Paul Oliveri, who was working the door at the Fish Market in Queens on Good Friday. ‘We’re doing the best we can to protect ourselves.’ (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Outside New York, the disparity appears even greater.

In Louisiana, for example, more than 70 per cent of those who have died from COVID-19 were black, despite making up only 32 per cent of the population.

“It’s not just about jobs, it’s not just about wages, it’s about health and working conditions and access to health insurance,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

“Because of rising inequality, more people are vulnerable,” she said. “This is a population that has lots of medical and cardiovascular co-morbidities.”

‘A health disaster’

Dr. Julien Cavanagh has been caring for a surge of COVID-19 patients at University Hospital Downstate SUNY in Brooklyn. He sees how existing health problems have endangered the diverse communities around his hospital.

“If you have less access to care, if you’re poor and you don’t have access to good nutrition, you’re more likely to have obesity, diabetes, hypertension, all things that make COVID-19 worse,” he said.

“We’ve seen them year after year [at this hospital], and we see them taking very hard hits in this epidemic.

“This is a health disaster of absolutely biblical proportions.”

Residents of Corona, a neighbourhood in Queens, line up to buy fish on Good Friday. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Almost unbelievably, at the heart of the outbreak epicentre in New York is Corona, a packed, mostly Latino neighbourhood in Queens.

The borough of Queens has been devastated by COVID-19, which has killed nearly 2,000 residents. Hospitals like Elmhurst made international headlines when they were overwhelmed in the early weeks of the spread.

In Corona, Roosevelt Avenue snakes along underneath an elevated train track. Most of its shops are closed, save for a few food stores, pharmacies and restaurants offering takeout.

The neon sign outside Corona Pizza is still blinking.

Corona has had among the highest number of coronavirus cases in the city. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

On Good Friday last week, outside a neighborhood fish shop, people lined up, spaced apart by a few feet, everyone wearing a mask, and most with shoulders hunched and worry creasing their faces. 

“It’s so scary,” said Carole Lopez, waiting for her fish order.

As a dental assistant at a nearby hospital, she is constantly surrounded by the threat of COVID-19

“You have to do it,” she said of going to work, even if you want to stay home. 

“You get there, you see your co-workers, you want to say, ‘Hi, how’s everything?’ But you’re just waiting for someone to tell you, ‘Something happened to my family,’ or to hear someone tested positive.”

Her father-in-law died last week from COVID-19, so Lopez got three days off as bereavement leave, but with funeral homes so overloaded, the family is on a two-week waiting list for his funeral.

“Out here, it’s really bad,” she said, gesturing to her neighbourhood, Corona, before rejoining the line for Friday fish. 

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