New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined a chorus of Black leaders across the city in questioning the decisions of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio as the COVID-19 death toll in Caribbean neighborhoods continues to rise.

As of April 24, the city reported that Black residents represented the highest number of hospitalizations and deaths related to the novel coronavirus, higher than any other race despite representing just 25% of the population. 

Caribbean neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have been particularly hard hit, prompting questions about where healthcare resources, testing and relief efforts in the city were initially focused by the mayor and governor.

“There was a lost opportunity at the beginning and sadly we missed a lot at all levels of government. It wasn’t just from President Donald Trump, who has obviously been a colossal failure. We saw failures on the city and state level. They didn’t act quick enough or bold enough and didn’t change and adapt as the information came in,” Williams told The Haitian Times, noting the ballooning racial disparities in COVID-19 infections and deaths in Black neighborhoods across the country.

“We recognize that the governor and mayor both really pushed this president to get additional resources and they should be applauded for that. But where the resources went once we got  them and the decisions to tighten up and restrict movement were all choices that laid with a mayor who moved too slowly and a governor who took unprecedented levels of power,” he added.

Stratified Response

Williams recently released a detailed report on the city’s COVID-19 response as well as plans for recovery efforts, highlighting the many ways city officials failed to adjust once it became clear that Black, working-class neighborhoods outside of Manhattan were struggling with the virus more than others.

The wide-ranging study attempts to explain what went wrong with the government’s response and Williams said it has become clear that there were two sets of policies for different groups of New Yorkers. 

In addition to starting the city-wide lockdown too late, the shift to teleworking stratified the city’s population between the haves and have-nots.

“75% of essential workers are black and brown. We had a policy for one group of New Yorkers that said stay home and telecommute if you can. And then we told another group that they have to go to work with no personal protective equipment and a large portion of them were Black and brown. A large portion were Caribbean and within that subset, a large portion were Haitian,” Williams said. 

“When you look at who are the nurses, assistants, sanitations workers and who works in the grocery stores, it becomes clear. This was all difficult to watch happen in slow motion. It’s April and we’re now starting to open testing sites in the communities hardest hit. We’re now getting things that are needed. It’s disheartening to see that two thirds of the zip codes that were being tested were all in White and wealthier communities while the vast majority of people who are hit the hardest were in Black and Brown communities.”

Williams leveled particularly pointed criticism at Cuomo’s efforts to create more healthcare facility beds in places like Central Park and The Javits Center, which the state recently announced that it was shutting down ahead of schedule

Now that city officials believe we are past the peak of infections and hospital beds are reportedly only about 80% full, the city is closing down some of the overflow facilities that were created out of fears that healthcare institutions would be overrun. Many of these beds and testing sites were placed across Manhattan.

But city maps of the zip codes with the highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths shows that Manhattan was never particularly hard hit by the virus, even at its peak. Instead, neighborhoods with heavy Haitian and Caribbean populations saw the vast majority of cases and deaths. 

The latest figures from the city show that as of April 30, Queens had more than 49,000 coronavirus cases, Brooklyn had over 42,000 and the Bronx had at least 36,000. Both Manhattan and Staten Island had less than 20,000 cases. Both Brooklyn and Queens had nearly 5,000 deaths while Manhattan has about 2,000. 

Dr. Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said on a media call last week that her data was showing Black and Latino New Yorkers dying at twice the rate of White residents. 

Official data from the city shows that as of April 30, Black people are contracting COVID-19, being hospitalized for it and dying from it at higher rates than any other race in the city. More than 8,000 Black people in the city have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and 4,404 people have died from it, representing the highest numbers in the city. 

Of the nearly 18,000 reported COVID-19 deaths in New York City, Black people make up 30.5%, more than any other race.

The stark differences served as more evidence “affirming longstanding structural racial disparities that are affected by things like access to insurance, housing and much, much more,” Dr. Barbot said.

The racial disparity in infections and deaths have only gotten more stark since those comments were made, and the figures may be significantly worse than already look considering 37% of the city’s coronavirus deaths did not have a race attributed to them. 

The New York Times also released a detailed report this week highlighting that the infection and death rates may be significantly higher than what is being reported because of how long it took for the government to roll out widespread COVID-19 testing. 

CDC scientists have said we may never truly know just how devastating the coronavirus pandemic was in communities across the country.

De Blasio and Cuomo Defend Response

Throughout their daily press conferences, both de Blasio and Cuomo have deflected blame for the racial differences in death rates, with each attributing the figures to systemic issues and less to their allocation of resources. 

“When I saw this, it made me very angry. It’s sick. It’s troubling. It’s wrong. And we are going to fight back with everything we’ve got,” de Blasio said during an April 8 press conference. “There are clear inequalities, clear disparities in how this disease is affecting the people of our city. So many people struggle to get the healthcare they need, who didn’t have the money to afford the healthcare they deserved. So many people have lived with chronic healthcare conditions.”

On April 10, months after the coronavirus pandemic took the world by storm, Cuomo directly addressed the numbers during a press conference, vowing to finally do more to help Black New York State residents. “We are going to do more testing in African American, Latino communities,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone is surprised that we have a higher incidence among the African American [and] Latino community. Luckily, the disparity in this state is not nearly as bad as we see in other places in the country. But there’s no doubt there’s systemic racism in our society still, and there’s systemic structural inequality in our health care system,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo did not address complaints about how coronavirus testing and resources were dispersed across the city, but he noted to reporters that more Black people were working as “essential workers.”

“I also believe it’s partially because you have more African Americans and Latinos in the public sector workforce, more of them were essential workers. They had to go to work. They didn’t have the luxury of staying home. Frankly, they didn’t have the luxury of going to this second-half home. They didn’t have the luxury of going to stay with their sister in some other place,” he said. 

“They had to go drive the bus and they had to drive the train and they had to go to the hospital because of the health care workers. So let’s understand it, let’s learn about it, but then let’s fix it. Let’s fix it. And let’s use this as a moment to understand the injustice and remedy it,” Cuomo added.

Williams did not hold back in his criticism of the mayor and governor’s slow response and questioned the resources allocated to barely-affected areas in wealthier sections of Manhattan. 

“We want to make sure the resources are going to the communities who need it the most. Instead of the Javits Center and places like Central Park, maybe we needed more in Kings County and Prospect Park so people can get help,” Williams said. 

“Unfortunately, the Haitian community, like the Caribbean community and other Black and brown communities, are hit really hard. We need to make sure we’re holding our leaders accountable. But more importantly forcing them to acknowledge where we made an error,” Williams added. 

“It’s not only so that we can avoid making the same error as we move forward in the coming weeks but also because it’s really important to see where the gaps in leadership are so we can fill those gaps.”

Williams noted that his office is hard at work making sure all health information is translated into Haitian Creole and that small businesses in Haitian neighborhoods get the financial help trickling down from the federal government since the troubled Paycheck Protection Program was set up by the Trump administration last month.

He also told The Haitian Times that moving forward, the city and state government have to put plans in place to make sure that issues causing these communities to be devastated by the virus are addressed. In the interview and in the coronavirus report, Williams tore into Cuomo for his much-publicized plans to cut Medicaid.

Earlier this month, the now-nationally popular governor announced he was slashing $2.5 billion a year out of the state’s Medicaid program to offset declines in tax revenue due to the economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic. 

During a press conference, Cuomo’s budget director Robert Mujica told reporters the state expected to see revenue decreases of somewhere between $9 billion and $15 billion in the next fiscal year. 

“I am disappointed that through the recent State budgetary process, the Governor cut approximately 1.6 billion dollars in state Medicaid funding, including $138 million from New York Health + Hospitals. I implore him to take immediate action to reverse course here and prevent the further depletion of essential resources from our already overwhelmed hospital system,” the Public Advocate report states.

Williams said the Medicaid cuts and other decisions about where funding was going were representative of a larger issue he had with the people surrounding the mayor and governor. The lack of diversity around both leaders became evident in their priorities, the Public Advocate noted. 

“When you look at the press conferences, you don’t see diversity of people around them, helping them make decisions. So maybe it’s not a surprise that there are specific communities that were most affected,” Williams said, adding that it took until April 20 for the city to roll out any testing in NYCHA buildings and other healthcare facilities in lower-income areas. 

“That’s the mayor, and very specifically the governor, who made these decisions. I quite frankly don’t know what data they were using to make these decisions when they did it, but clearly we can’t cut Medicaid right now,” Williams said.

Public Advocate Report

The COVID-19 Pandemic Preliminary Response Recovery Report includes dozens of proposals for initiatives like rent assistance, mental health hotlines, prison population reductions, moratoriums on arrests for quality-of-life crimes, food programs, subsidized internet connections, federal bailouts for essential transit agencies and financial programs designed to keep people afloat as the economy recovers.

The report also calls for hazard pay for essential workers, small business bailouts, a universal basic income, suspensions of debt collection and an end to ICE arrests in and around hospitals. The Public Advocate’s office added in demands for more widespread COVID-19 testing and Williams highlighted a number of problems with the current testing scheme in place in four different places across the city. 

He said he personally has visited four different testing sites, two of which are in Brooklyn, one in Queens and one in the Bronx. Most of these sites were only drive-thru testing sites, meaning you needed a car and an appointment to get tested. 

The limited number of tests was also forcing people to line up early in the morning with no expectation that they would be tested.

It took until April 30 for the city to announce that it was opening more community testing sites, bringing the number up to 11, with eight at public clinics and three at NYCHA developments. According to Politico, the city plans to triple the number of community testing sites to 30 by the week of May 18.

But the continuing slow response and problems helping the hardest hit areas left Williams fearful of a second and third wave of the virus, which CDC scientists have repeatedly warned of with the Fall flu season on its way. 

“I don’t think they’ve shown much confidence that they are ready for another wave. One of the  things that we’ve asked for is a task force to be put together immediately especially to help deal with some of the disparity. We haven’t gotten much traction on that. People should be very concerned that the leaders like the mayor and governor who helped get us in this situation are the ones who are helping direct the response and recovery without other voices around there,” Williams said.

“We failed certain communities, we just simply failed them. We had no plan for the most vulnerable in our city. We then told the most vulnerable Black and brown communities that they have to go to work to keep the city moving, essentially saying ‘You’re expendable for the real residents of the city,’” he added. 

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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