‘The pandemic has spared no one—but in The Bronx the virus found a host community that has long been left to fend for itself without the resources to do much about it.’
The twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice that have ripped through this country the past six month have exposed and exacerbated long-standing inequities in our collective health, prosperity, and safety. Thousands of low-income people of color have died, millions of low-wage workers are out of a job, and Black people are experiencing violence, trauma, and oppression daily. As our leaders grapple with the events of the last few months and look to the difficult work of regrouping, rebuilding, and redressing these, we need a renewed focus on the communities that have been hit hardest. In New York City, that means focusing on places like The Bronx.
The health crisis and daily injustices the people of the Bronx face today are a direct consequence of the decisions made by policymakers over the past several decades. After World War II, as white families fled the borough and Black and Latino families—who were barred by policies like redlining from following them into the suburbs—replaced them, the architect of modern New York City, Robert Moses, chose to abandon those communities entirely. He greenlit the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, displacing thousands of residents and destroying and dividing existing neighborhoods. Then in the 1970’s and 80’s, the city looked the other way as landlords took advantage of insurance laws that allowed them to abandon tenants and buildings to disrepair and eventually arson. The Bronx burned so that absentee landlords could get their insurance payouts for the small price of pushing a generation of Black and brown Bronxites into homelessness and poverty.
It’s no surprise then, that the COVID-19 crisis has hit The Bronx the hardest. The pandemic has spared no one—but in The Bronx the virus found a host community that has long been left to fend for itself without the resources to do much about it.
In the past six months, we have lost and cared for more loved ones than most communities in the country. Our overcrowded public housing complexes became ideal incubators for the deadly virus. Without a strong healthcare system, many struggled to find adequate care. Nevertheless, every day, a disproportionate number of our neighbors formed an army of essential workers, boarding crowded subways and serving our city. Countless others, without personal wealth to fall back on, have lost jobs as we approach Depression-level unemployment levels, lost housing, and worry about where their next meals will come from.
The Bronx is the borough of Rikers Island, where people from overpoliced Black and brown communities languish in horrifying conditions and take on intergenerational trauma that funnels hundreds of thousands of Bronxites into the criminal, child welfare, civil, and immigration legal systems.
When we heard the news of Ahmaud Arbery, and then Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Jacob Blake, we were not surprised. The Bronx has its own list of Black neighbors who have died at the hands of the police. Amadou Diallo, Ramarley Graham, and Deborah Danner and Eleanor Bumpurs are just a few. For far too long, the people in our communities, our sisters and brothers, have not received the duty of care and rights that should be equally afforded to all citizens.
The people of the Bronx are what American should strive to be: a resilient, resourceful, and diverse population, where immigrants have always been welcome. In response to the two pandemics facing our borough, we did what we have always done. We came together, we organized, and we launched new ways of meeting the needs of our neighbors.
At The Bronx Defenders, which represents thousands of low-income Bronx residents in criminal, family, immigration, and housing court, we surveyed our clients to better understand how system-involved Bronxites could best be supported. The findings were stark. 47 percent of BxD clients reported needing personal protective equipment, 32 percent needed support arounded employment, and 28 percent needed support with food. In all, 62 percent reported needing some sort of material assistance in dealing with the challenges of the pandemic.
Over the past six months, we have worked with our community partners to address those needs wherever possible, sending over 1,500 face masks to clients and their family members, distributing emergency food support to hundreds of families, depositing $100 directly into the commissary accounts of incarcerated clients, and connecting directly with community members to help them navigate the public benefits systems.
The Bronx Community Foundation launched our COVID-19 relief program, The Bronx Community Relief Effort this spring with a similar mindset—a recognition that the unprecedented harm the COVID-19 crisis was wreaking on our borough needed immediate and specialized attention. Our relief effort has distributed over one million units of PPE, delivered over one million in meals jointly with our partners and distributed over $1 million in microgrants, amongst other support needs. We have tried to plug holes and be the band-aid wherever possible, but for those who are food insecure, suffering from a lack of PPE, and those who have educational and technological gaps, our efforts just provide a period of respite. We have supported small business, non-profits, those who are housing insecure and connected community members to legal support.
We don’t say this to pat ourselves on the back. We are far from alone in our efforts to support The Bronx. Our work just builds off of what people across the borough are doing every day to support each other.
Much of our work right now is by nature reactive. We’re filling gaps wherever we can, as fast as we can. But we know these needs will extend beyond the pandemic and that we need permanent, long-term solutions to the structural problems facing the borough. The rebuilding that comes next will necessitate greater support and commitment, not less. And we can not do it alone.
We have both seen directly how community disinvestment contributes to the cycle of mass incarceration and poverty. We can tackle both by investing directly in the needs of the community.
Our city’s civic leaders must reckon directly with the harm that long-term divestment from The Bronx has caused. Rebuilding after COVID cannot just mean going back to the way things were. It has to go farther. Yes, the people of The Bronx are molded, tough, proud, and independent, but it’s time to stop taking advantage of our resilience to ask us to sacrifice so much in the first place.
The summer of protest and the summer of COVID has laid bare basic realities that we must all take forward. The sacrifices of our Black and Brown working class should not go unacknowledged. The incredible diversity of our borough should not be an invitation for over-policing and racial profiling.
For this city to bounce back, we need to redouble our efforts to support low-income communities of color. We cannot simply go back to where we were in February 2020. We need deep community investment in The Bronx.
Wes Caines is chief of staff at The Bronx Defenders and Desmon Lewis is a co-founder of The Bronx Community Foundation.