Rich flee NYC, workers deal with COVID-19

Here, a train going to a poor area of Brooklyn at 6 pm on March 31. Social distancing is not an option for low-wage workers, many of whom are essential workers. Photo: Facebook page of Radical Graffiti.

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With 67,822 people infected with coronavirus and 2,472 dead, the residents of this sprawling city of 8.6 million people have been warned to stay at home. Yet the mail is delivered, the trash taken away, food is stocked and sold in supermarkets. The ambulance comes when you call 911, and doctors and nurses are in the hospitals.

These essential works are the heroes of the pandemic. New York would collapse without them. Clearly they need every support. But they are not getting it.

Mount Sinai is one of the hospitals where nurses have had to wear trash bags for gowns due to shortages. On April 3, these nurses protested outside the hospital holding pictures of their colleagues who had died of the virus and demanding PPE.

Who was listening? Not their bosses. While their staff are risking their lives to treat others, two of the Mount Sinai Hospital  system’s top executives are waiting out the pandemic in their Florida vacation homes.

Dr. Kenneth Davis, 72, the CEO of the Mount Sinai Health System who got $6 million in compensation in 2018, is holed up in his waterfront mansion near Palm Beach, Fla. Dr. Arthur Klein, 72, president of the Mount Sinai Health Network, is also in his oceanfront condo, also in Palm Beach.

When the virus hit, the rich turned tail and ran

These millionaires are not the only ones who ran away. New York is the big money city, the city of Wall Street and the epicenter of capitalism. With at least 65 billionaires and 350,000 millionaires, it is the richest city in the world. When the virus hit hard, the rich turned tail and ran.

Business magnate David Geffen was so crass as to circulate a picture of himself waiting out the pandemic in the Grenadines on his $590 million yacht, with a message hoping everyone was well.

Whole luxury buildings were seen clearing out, as the wealthy fled to their country homes in the Hamptons on  Long Island, in Connecticut, on Cape Cod. The gutless exodus was so big that the population of the Hamptons increased by 40 percent in the last few weeks. While workers with no protections took their lives in hand by traveling in crowded subways, the mail of the rich got its own private and roomy limousine. Many now holed up in the Hamptons are paying hundreds of dollars a day for a private limo to bring their mail to them from their Manhattan apartments.

Those who claim to make the world turn have not only been absolutely useless in this health crisis, they also have been dangerous. In the rush to save their necks they did not flee the virus, they took it with them. Their mass exodus to Hamptons coincides with a steep spike in virus cases in Suffolk County, where the Hamptons are located.

Essential workers sick and dying

Essential workers have gotten no support from the money class who claim to make this city work, and virtually no government protection. Some city and state policies and practices have even threatened their safety. They have been left on their own to individually find a way to stay well as they perform their necessary functions.  This is criminal neglect.The result is that front-line workers in NYC and their families have the highest COVID-19 contagion rates and the greatest number of deaths from the virus.

New health statistics released April 1 show the city’s confirmed COVID-19 cases by patient address and by ZIP code. This has revealed that the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of confirmed virus cases are also those with very large numbers essential workers — from medical to supermarkets to delivery to sanitation and janitorial.  These workers, almost all people of color, mostly survive on minimum wage or a little more.

The Queens neighborhoods of Corona, Elmherst, and Jackson Heights, have the highest viral loads in this city. In those neighborhoods, people who work in food preparation and serving, personal care and service — including childcare workers and aides to the elderly — as well as in the construction and janitorial industries make up 38 percent of the working population, according to Census Bureau data.

Immigrants are on the front lines   

Some 40 percent of New Yorkers were born elsewhere, and Queens is home to the city’s greatest number of immigrants.

For example, some 167,840 home health aides are still working, assisting people in their homes who cannot manage bathing and cooking, or in many cases, accessing the toilet or even getting in and out of bed by themselves.

These workers are overwhelmingly low-income immigrant women of color. Many live paycheck to paycheck. Some rely on public benefits for food and housing, according to SEIU 1199, the union representing 60,000 city health aides.

“The vast majority of home and community-based providers (68%) in our survey report that they do not have access to adequate personal protective equipment,” said Home Care Association of New York State President and CEO Al Cardillo.

Across the board, essential workers have virtually no Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  As most are minimum wage workers, they often live in close quarters with several family members, conditions where the coronavirus can spread easily. They have no other option but to take crowded subway trains to their jobs, conditions which expose them repeatedly to the virus.

Social distancing not an option for low-wage workers

Social distancing to slow contagion is a huge issue in this city. In normal times, the subway has 4.3 million daily riders. Going to and from work under normal circumstances often means coming within three feet of hundreds of people.

With orders issued for New Yorkers to stay home, subway ridership has now decreased dramatically. Ridership is the lowest in areas of the city where people can work from home. While many subway stations are empty, subway stations in many working class neighborhoods are just as crowded as if nothing has happened. These stations are clustered in low-income areas where many front-line workers live.

The Bronx: Poorest have highest death rates

Take the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, where COVID-19 deaths are double those of the city as a whole. Bronx’s residents have the highest rates of asthma, diabetes and hypertension and other comorbidities that make the virus especially deadly. But many of them are also workers who cannot stay home.

The 170th Street station in University Heights and the Burnside Station in Mount Eden are in sections of the Bronx with a high percentage of African and Latin American immigrants. Their median household income is a third of the city as a whole. Half the children here live in poverty. A great many here do not have health insurance. These subway stations are still crowded, with thousands packing the trains daily, risking exposure to the virus.

In fact, the city has actually made matters worse for them. With the schools closed and people working at home, and subway ridership down by about 3 million, the city has cut back on service everywhere, significantly increasing the crowding on subways in these clustered areas.

The virus has taken a heavy toll on transit workers. In early March the Transit Authority said it had little PPE, and conductors and others were even instructed to work without masks, endangering themselves and the riders. At the end of March, however, the Authority found it had a large stash of masks it didn’t know about. By that time the damage was done. More than a thousand transit workers are infected, and 22 have died.

Medical workers at highest risk

The constant exposure to the virus and lack of PPE puts medical personnel at an especially high risk. With as much as a third of the doctors and nurses out at any given time, those remaining must deal with such an onslaught of very sick patients that hospitals are being called war zones.

There were 7,200 calls for ambulances made on March 31 alone. The daily 911 call volume is so high that, according to EMT Facebook posts, it has surpassed calls made on 9/11. This overload, plus a staff decimated by sickness, has meant that some patients are waiting nine hours for an ambulance.

Meanwhile, EMTs sent home because they tested positive for the virus are being forced to return to work before the 14-day quarantine is over, and they are returning to mandated double shifts. Fire Department EMTs and their union are fighting a ruling falsely declaring surgical masks safe that threatens to penalize the emergency worker if they bring their own much-safer N95 mask and wear it at work.

Such working conditions and rules create a situation that is unsafe for workers and their patients. It’s no wonder that some ambulance workers, instead of going home, have taken to sleeping in their cars between shifts to avoid infecting their families.

City and state governments serve big money

The state, city and federal government have turned their backs on these workers.  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has given trillions of dollars in tax breaks to giant real estate developers now hiding out in the Hamptons, and turned needed hospitals into luxury condos. Yet, the major is refusing to grant hazard pay to the EMTs and paramedics risking their lives every day.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo blasted Trump for not providing ventilators yet, even in the midst of this pandemic, he is cutting $400 million in Medicaid funds from the municipal hospitals. While other hospitals turn away those without insurance, the municipal hospitals which treat everyone, and are most likely to be utilized by immigrants, low-wage workers and the undocumented.

Workers show solidarity with those who risk their lives

The working people of this city have a very different view of events. Every night at 7 p.m. thousands of the housebound here stand by their windows or on their balconies to clap, whistle, shout, and bang pots and pans. They are saying “thanks” to the doctors, nurses, emergency medical attendants, grocery and food workers, delivery people, postal workers, truck drivers, janitors, sanitation workers, electrical workers, transit drivers, home health aids and others who risk their lives daily doing essential work so that the rest of us can stay home and be safe.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that these people, the ones actually getting the job done, are most vital and necessary. In marked contrast, by their own behavior during this crisis, the CEOs, billionaires and their political flunkies have shown themselves not only to be useless, but to be parasites feeding off of others. Society would be much better off without them.

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