Opinions & Observations: Your zip code should not determine whether you survive COVID-19
I don’t remember all that much about first grade. But I do recall my mother telling Ms. Deshora at P.S. 102 that I would be missing another day of school because of complications from my asthma. I should have been playing with my friends, and learning how to read, but I was stuck at home in Sunset Park, sandwiched between a sludge transfer facility, dozens of former toxic industrial sites, and the car-choked Gowanus Expressway. The air I breathed every day was heavily polluted.
Thirty years later, myself and scores of residents of my State Assembly District still suffer from both extremely high asthma rates and one of the highest lung cancer rates in all of Brooklyn. We are not alone. Across New York City, neighborhoods that are predominantly working class, immigrant, and communities of color, suffer disproportionately from air pollution and poor health, the direct result of decades of environmentally unjust decisions and legislators who care more about staying in office than taking action to protect their districts. The data from the COVID pandemic shows that people in these same neighborhoods are getting sick and dying at higher rates.
COVID isn’t the great equalizer — it’s the great revealer. Economic injustice isn’t just about money. Disparities in class and race affect our health, the air we breathe, and whether we live or die. Your zip code should not determine your survival. But coronavirus exposes how decades of passivity from our state leadership have led to preventable deaths and crippling economic effects that we are suffering from today.
A new nationwide study shows that pre-existing conditions like asthma and lung cancer, which are exacerbated by long-term exposure to air pollution, also make COVID-19 more lethal. Just-released studies of COVID cases in New York by zip code demonstrate with startling clarity that low-income neighborhoods are some of the hardest hit.
When you overlay the COVID case map with local air pollution across New York City, it reveals that, not surprisingly, living near exhaust-belching highways, waste transfer stations and industrial sites has an impact on health as detrimental as redlining has had on home ownership. While New York City has not yet disclosed a robust and detailed breakdown of COVID cases by race and ethnicity, recent data from Chicago show that people of color are dying from this virus three times as much as other groups.
You would think that our state government would respond to this crisis by taking every possible measure to protect districts like mine from future pandemics. Instead, last week the New York State legislature passed an “austerity” budget that includes serious cuts to Medicaid and New York’s public hospitals.
And at a time when our teachers have reinvented learning almost overnight to keep our education system running, this budget provides no new funding for education. It does nothing to freeze rents for homes or small businesses, provides no support for gig workers, and leaves undocumented immigrants to fend for themselves, since they will not be eligible for any federal help. Worse yet, it gives Governor Cuomo extraordinary new authority to slash funding without the Legislature.
Governor Cuomo’s excuse for starving the state is that “New York is broke.” He claims the only way forward is to cut services to our most vulnerable communities. Yet New York has over 100 billionaires and scores of empty apartments owned by international oligarchs that we could tax to raise revenue. After the Trump tax cuts, billionaires are richer than ever. They can afford to pay their fair share so that our public hospitals, schools and services survive. If anything has proven that austerity has failed New York, it is coronavirus.
Sadly, most Legislators voted yes to parts of the New York budget that allow the Governor to continue devastating cuts to the budget which will only hurt our community. And my State Assembly Member Felix Ortiz, who has been in office for 26 years, since I was ten years old, still refuses to use his long-accrued political capital to protect us in the middle of a deadly pandemic, record unemployment, and a terrifying financial crisis.
Today, I am a city planner who helps city and state governments all over the country respond to climate emergencies and reduce air pollution. I’ve seen time and again that when governments allow problems of inequality to fester, the most vulnerable communities wind up on the frontlines of climate and public health disasters, with the fewest resources to withstand them. The most poignant reminder is my own community, Sunset Park, where people are still being left behind by the politicians who have sworn to represent us.
New Yorkers deserve leaders willing to build more equitable systems of taxation, and willing to expand — not shrink — social services and protections for workers and all of our most vulnerable residents. Where you live, and how much money you make, should not determine how you and your neighbors fare during the coronavirus crisis.
Katherine Walsh, born and raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn is running for the New York State Assembly in AD51 to represent Sunset Park, Red Hook, and parts of Bay Ridge, Borough Park, South Park Slope, Gowanus and Carroll Gardens. The election is June 23rd, 2020. Find more at www.katherineforassembly.com.
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