'Fear is beginning to take over people's lives': Coronavirus in Queens
The sirens just don't seem to end.
In the northwestern neighbourhoods of Queens, the drone from ambulances racing to help sick coronavirus patients has become a daily score in people's lives.
"We are used to hearing ambulances, but now it's like every 10 minutes," said Shalini Kishan, a resident of Jackson Heights, an area in Queens that has become the "epicentre of the epicentre" of coronavirus cases in New York City.
"It's hard not to feel distressed by it. Each time they are taking someone, it's someone's parents or brother or sister being taken alone into a bare-boned hospital system."
"I have actually seen emergency staff wearing makeshift gear while taking them into the ambulance."
One third of all coronavirus infections in New York City are in the densely populated borough of more than a million people, mostly immigrants.
At the Elmhurst hospital, located less than a kilometre away from Kishan's apartment, emergency services are working at full capacity to treat patients struggling to breathe because of the virus.
As far back as late March, the 545-bed public hospital focused almost entirely on treating the pandemic. Some patients have reportedly died at the hospital waiting for beds. Outside the hospital, refrigerator trucks have been set up to store the dead.
"I don't know if it's just in my head, but sirens are getting louder. As if they are getting closer and closer," 30-year-old Kishan adds.
'Businesses are destroyed'
'Many people are already feeling hopeless. How much more can we wash our hands, wear gloves, cover our faces, when the system is designed not to work and care for certain people?'
- Habiba Choudhury, organiser
Exposing the disparities
Diverse and dense
According to the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, almost 1.1 million of the more than 3.1 million immigrants in NYC, live in Queens.
The diverse borough represents both a home and a gateway for millions of new immigrants into the city. One in five people living in Corona and Elmhurst already live in poverty, making Queens a timebomb.
"Almost everyone in Queens knows someone who has passed away from the virus; almost everyone I know, knows someone who has the virus.
"Everyone in Queens has an essential worker in their family,” Abdelhamid says. “It’s all very close to home."
Choudhury says that her family knows about 10 people who have died from the virus.
"My dad's best friend was one of them. It has been a very painful time for us," the 26-year-old told MEE.
"I look around at the small businesses that have closed. All of these people have bills and rent and debt. What are they going to do now?"
Though the virus has not spared A-list celebrities or politicians, residents and community organisers are disputing claims that the pandemic is a grand leveler or equaliser.
Kishan says that Elmhurst and Jackson Heights might be hit hard, but other neighbourhoods like Jamaica, where predominantly Black people live, is still receiving scant attention. Black Muslims have already sounded the alarm over the neglect faced by their community.
The system doesn't care for everyone
The health crisis in Queens has also been exacerbated by the fact that many workers, now deemed as 'essential' during the crisis, do not ordinarily have proper access to health care, leaving many of their underlying health issues unattended.
Then it is a matter of access and resources. There are three times as many beds per 1,000 people in Manhattan than in Queens.
One emergency medicine doctor at Elmhurst Hospital Center wrote on Sunday that "even during normal times, patients at Elmhurst Hospital experience long waits for mundane medical concerns… so it is wholly unsurprising that this hospital would be overwhelmed now by an enormous surge of patients".
Though Governor Andrew Cuomo has acknowledged that poor and working-class people are mostly impacted, and also agreed to release data detailing the specific demographic groups hit by the virus, it is not clear what specific measures are being taken to contain Covid-19 in places where it is spreading at a faster rate.
Cuomo's office did not respond to MEE's request for comment.
Organisations like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a social justice group dedicated to the South Asian and Caribbean community, have been urging the government to cancel rent - not only to help those who have lost their livelihoods but to account for the pre-existing structural shortfalls of the health and economic system.
Multiple surveys have found that at least 40 percent of New Yorkers wouldn't be able to afford their rent in April.
Choudhury says without urgent and imaginative intervention, the anxiety will soon turn to widespread hopelessness.
"Many people are already feeling hopeless. How much more can we wash our hands, wear gloves, cover our faces, when the system is designed not to work and care for certain people?”
"The solution is a rent freeze so that they can stay inside. If they have to go to work, then give them the guarantee of health care or the right equipment, so they aren’t risking their lives every day."