By Sam Bojarski
Evans St. Fort, chief executive officer of St. Fort Funeral Home in North Miami Beach, Florida, has witnessed the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic like few others have. Through much of August, he said, the funeral home was seeing as many as 30 calls per week, a 30% increase since February.
Since then, life has gradually returned to normal, with restaurants opening for limited indoor dining. And, with the November election approaching, St. Fort said people are apprehensive about voting in-person, in the battleground state of Florida.
“I think everyone is on edge,” said St. Fort, who plans to vote by mail. “I’m just hoping that people are just taking better precautions now that they see what this [virus] can actually do.”
While the number of calls at St. Fort Funeral Home started to decline during the last week of August, St. Fort said he was still concerned heading into the fall.
“We’re getting into flu season,” said St. Fort, 42. “I kind of feel like it’s a slowdown before another storm.”
More than six months into the pandemic, Haitians in the United States are moving forward, albeit with uncertainty about what lies ahead. Adding to the anxiety is the economic hardship driven by job loss, disparities in technology access and the persistent emotional toll of losing loved ones. According to medical experts, existing and unaddressed chronic health conditions have led to more severe cases of COVID-19.
While New York City observed positivity rates under 1% for months until late September, authorities have observed recent upticks in Haitian enclaves, including Flatbush and Midwood. These are among six neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn and Queens that accounted for 20% of cases citywide during the week of Sept. 21.
Financial distress lingers
The hospitality industry, a major source of employment in Miami and New York City, has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
The Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, a social services nonprofit in North Miami, Florida, estimated in April that 40% of the population it serves works in hospitality.
In August, Sant La helped about 200 people file for unemployment claims and extensions each week, said Leonie Hermantin, the organization’s communications director.
U.S. states pay out different amounts for unemployment, on a weekly basis. The maximum weekly amount Floridians can receive is $275, tied for the third-lowest among all states. The extra $600 in supplemental assistance from the federal government expired in July.
“The situation is still pretty dire in terms of unemployment,” Hermantin said.
Yolette Williams, chief coordinator of the Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force, organized in March by Haitian community leaders in New York City, said people continue to call the task force’s hotline about unemployment.
Call volumes overall have declined since the pandemic’s peak in April, although Williams could not immediately provide exact figures.
More recently, callers have voiced anxiety about the expiration of the extra $600 in unemployment assistance from the federal government.
“People were calling about this, they were a little bit anxious,” said Williams, who is also president of the Haitian-American Alliance of New York (HAA). “Now that it has gone, they’ve sometimes called to ask questions.”
Residents can call the Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force hotline at 1-800-865-2950. The task force has addressed food insecurity, employment and language barriers since the pandemic began.
Cultural barriers have made it difficult for some to access unemployment assistance. Porez Luxama, executive director of the nonprofit Life of Hope Center, which serves youth and immigrant families in Brooklyn, said those with limited English-language and technology skills have found it difficult to apply for unemployment online.
To aid the undocumented, who are ineligible for state assistance, the Open Society Foundation (OSF) donated $20 million in assistance funding for city residents. The program was announced in April, and funds were distributed through social services organizations.
Life of Hope Center was one of at least four Haitian-led organizations that distributed money.
Organizations finished making cash distributions in August. Life of Hope received a total of $100,000 and made distributions to 200 families. Some received amounts as high as $1,000, according to Luxama.
Since March, he said, the closure of restaurants and schools has caused job loss or reduced work hours. Those with children, he added, often had to stay home due to school closures.
“We’re looking for the city to do a second round,” Luxama said, of the cash distribution program. “People need to have some cash funds for the kids going back to school, for their own natural medicine, because they don’t have insurance.”
Businesses that pay employees under the table, a relatively common practice for family-owned, immigrant-run businesses, have not been able to access federal assistance programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The program requires businesses to demonstrate payroll expenses, The Haitian Times reported in June.
Entrepreneurs like Wesley Jean-Simon, co-owner of Zanmi restaurant on Nostrand Avenue and Hawthorne Street, have formed a Haitian Business Coalition to help other business owners apply for assistance, as well as create email accounts and social media pages.
In a Sept. 9 interview, Jean-Simon said at least five businesses had closed in the preceding three weeks alone. He said “mom-and-pop” restaurants have struggled the most during the pandemic.
“This is just a preview of what’s to come,” said Mahadya Mary, who works for New York City’s Small Business Services (SBS) department, speaking about business closings.
Many family-owned restaurants in Brooklyn are only equipped for takeout and cannot offer outdoor dining, said Mary, who has served as an advisor to the Haitian Business Coalition.
District 42 Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, who chairs the subcommittee on Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises has introduced legislation that would provide mortgage forbearance for these same small business owners.
“Those that have survived [the pandemic] face the prospect of having to repay borrowed capital while staying afloat with expenditures,” Bichotte said in a written statement. “As we head into the fall, restaurants that are subsisting on profits from the Outdoor Dining initiative now face the fear that cold weather will shut down business once again.”
Coronavirus: The social toll
From business to health care, to social life, digital communication has grown in importance.
Jean-Simon has spent about $100 each day on social media advertising, largely to promote Zanmi’s outdoor dining area. These efforts have paid off.
“Social media, that’s what’s driving us right now,” said Jean-Simon, who added that he is considering opening a second location for Zanmi elsewhere in Brooklyn. The restaurant first opened in February.
In July, the nonprofit Haitian-American Community Coalition (HCC) reported an increase in referrals for mental health services, since March. The organization typically utilizes video conferencing but has used the telephone for clients who lack technology skills. More than 90% of the clients HCC serves are of Caribbean descent.
Age isn’t the only factor when it comes to technology access, according to HCC Deputy Executive Director Fuljens Henry.
“There are also literacy barriers involved for our immigrant clients who are both over and under the age of 60; as we have clients who haven’t completed formal schooling,” Henry said, in an email.
Since New York City entered Phase Four of reopening, he said HCC has accommodated clients on-site, by appointment only. Most clients, Henry added, continue to utilize telehealth services.
Dr. Mila Gauvin, an internal medicine specialist at AdvantageCare Physicians who practices in Brooklyn Heights, has seen patients struggle to access telehealth. When one older patient developed a rash, Gauvin said she tried to organize a virtual visit, to examine if the rash could be a COVID-19 symptom. The woman, whose age was kept confidential, had to go through a grandchild to set up the visit, since her mobile phone was not compatible with Zoom.
This meant the patient could not see a doctor when she wanted to.
“That was a vibrant case of what technology can do and [what] a lack of it can do as well,” said Gauvin, who connected the issue of technology access to economic hardship. “Economic distress brings health distress and life distress.”
In Brooklyn, coronavirus has pushed social life outdoors, as many people are still reluctant to host large gatherings inside their homes. Tools like Zoom continue to play an important role, especially when communicating with loved ones across state and international boundaries.
St. Fort said he is live streaming funeral services, while limiting in-person attendance to a maximum of 50 people.
Mental and physical health
While necessary from a public health perspective, limits on in-person attendance at churches and funeral homes have prevented families from grieving. The need to isolate those who test positive has also created stress for Haitian families.
Some families have lost multiple loved ones, which led to widespread fear of seeking treatment in hospitals this spring, said Dr. Christina Pardo, 37, a gynecologist who works at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Dr. Pardo has also noticed anxiety about social distancing guidelines within families.
“In a Haitian family, we are used to being around each other,” said Pardo, who lives on Long Island. “The way that [coronavirus] has disrupted all of this, I think, has had a significant effect on everybody.”
Medical experts say underlying health conditions in immigrant communities have worsened the impact of COVID-19. One July paper published by researchers at the Texas-based Baylor College of Medicine noted the prevalence of chronic conditions in immigrant populations within the U.S.
Researchers reported that 71.5% of immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America were obese, while 9.6% had diabetes. The rates of these illnesses, which could exacerbate a potential COVID-19 infection, were 42.4% and 8.2%, respectively, in the general population.
Lack of access to preventive medicine, the Baylor researchers noted in the paper, has exacerbated these underlying conditions.
Gauvin said patients with chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease were more likely to require a ventilator, indicating severe respiratory distress from COVID-19.
“We are behind in terms of taking care of our chronic illnesses,” Gauvin said, of the Haitian community.
The road ahead
In Miami, Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center has helped spread messaging about COVID-19 prevention, in part through its radio program on the Haitian-American station WSRF.
While misinformation about the virus is still a concern, Hermantin said adherence to social distancing guidelines and mask-wearing has improved markedly since March.
“You don’t have to say it twice now,” she said.
Williams, the HAA president, identified school reopening as a leading source of anxiety in New York’s Haitian community.
New York City schools have allowed some students to return to the classroom, although educators have voiced concerns about the potential health risks of doing so. Families were offered the chance to opt for part-time in-person instruction or fully remote learning.
Haitian educators have voiced concern about the possibility of the virus spreading in schools, since many students rely on public transportation. Crowded living conditions, especially among immigrant families, could make remote learning difficult.
Miami-Dade public schools started the school year remotely, with in-person classes remaining a possibility this fall.
Nancy St. Leger, an elementary school instructor in Miami, said remote learning has been frustrating, since the Aug. 31 start of the school year.
Ensuring class attendance on a daily basis has proven difficult, she said, with many students stuck at home by themselves, while their parents work. St. Leger also said that assisting children with remote learning has been a source of frustration among parents.
Remote learning might be safer from a public health standpoint. But Williams said she anticipates most parents in New York City sending their children to school part-time, due to job constraints.
While Pardo voiced concern about a fall uptick in COVID-19 cases, given the onset of flu season, she said most people continue to follow guidelines like mask-wearing and handwashing.
For health care professionals, the pandemic has been a wakeup call for the need to treat chronic health conditions within the Haitian community.
“COVID reinforced the need to combat those chronic illnesses that put patients at even higher risk,” Gauvin said. “That’s where we can really make an impact in the lives of our Haitian patients.”