Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: COVID-19 hits Bronx hard

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK— I lived in the Bronx for the first 20 years of my life. After that I spent some years drifting through various graduate schools, finally returning to New York for good in 1965 to begin my teaching career in CUNY, first as an adjunct and later on a tenured line. However, it wasn't the Bronx I came back to, but Manhattan, which is where I had always dreamt of living since I attended college. Still, if I couldn't go home again, the Bronx remains embedded in my memory, and for better or worse has shaped me. And despite my physically and intellectually leaving it behind, I remain proud I grew up there. It may have been parochial and limiting, but in memory at least, it seemed more often than not warm and communal — a village of sorts.

So every four or five years I have returned to see how the Bronx is changing. On a recent visit I didn't see many signs of the vaunted gentrification that newspaper articles have written of. Much of the Bronx looked the same, from solidly working class areas where Hispanic families shopped at Dollar Stores, to neighborhoods that looked more marginal and ominous, with junkies looking for a fix and gang members sullenly lounging on street corners. The one obvious change since the '70s was that the burnt out buildings and empty lots of those years had been replaced by prefabricated private homes and private apartment buildings whose rents are subsidized by the government. But my trip was short and only touched a small swath of the Bronx, and I know I must have missed seeing some of the efforts at rebuilding the borough.

Despite the news about new businesses and real estate developments, the Bronx has continued to deal with lower income, health and quality of life issues more than is true of other parts of the city. The poverty rate is near 30 percent for a population largely made up of African Americans and Latinos, and the unemployment rate is high as well. These factors made the Bronx more vulnerable to the pandemic as it swept the city. The borough has the city's highest rates of virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, while Manhattan has the lowest.


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In just months, the coronavirus has threatened to wipe out more than a decade of attempts to rebuild the Bronx with new developments and businesses and has made life even more perilous for those who have struggled merely to survive, including low-paid essential workers without health insurance, paid sick time or unions to back them. And 79 percent of New York's frontline workers — nurses, subway and bus staff, delivery workers, van drivers, grocery cashiers — are African American or Latino. The coronavirus has made clear yet again that we are two societies divided on lines of class and race. And that divide is reflected in the skewed death figures from the pandemic.

The death figures are accelerated by the fact that adults in the Bronx have the highest rates in the city of asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure, all of which can complicate dealing with the virus. In addition, roughly one in three Bronx adults is obese, and healthy foods can be difficult to find in many areas of the Bronx.

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I interviewed a nurse practitioner, Sara Goback, who works at North Central Bronx Hospital. She said that when the pandemic hit, the hospital was short-staffed, had to reuse PPEs, and it "took a month to get systems in place, such as where to put the overflow of patients who needed to be admitted. Some systems were never put into place. She said "the patients mirrored the community — underserved and minority." The hospital faced space issues, and makeshift wards were less than optimal for patient treatment, with many patients placed in one room. "In general the patients were frightened and so were some of the staff. And through all the shifts, all you heard was the overhead intercom paging `respiratory,' meaning that someone needed to be intubated."

She also informed me "among the personnel working in-patient medicine there was sense of collaboration. When the hospital got additional staff to help with the large volume of admitted patients, some came from the hospital staff and some were volunteers. Overall the nurses, nurse practitioners, doctors, and respiratory therapists did a wonderful job. The hospital is neither wealthy nor cutting edge, but was able to acquire some of newer treatments, like plasma and remdesivir for the patients."

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In sum a difficult situation, "where everyone pulled their weight and did what they could for the patients during a period when the hospital was primarily a COVID-19 institution, and only now is back serving the general health care of the community."

When I left the Bronx it was already in decline, and during the 1970s, afflicted by high crime and arson, it lost one of five residents. By the early 1980s, the South Bronx was considered one of the most blighted urban areas in the country, with a loss of 60 percent of the population and 40 percent of housing units. But it did revive, with a population that reached 1,455 million and growing.

However, given the devastation that COVID-19 has wrought, can the city and especially the Bronx renew itself again?

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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