The Disparities Of Covid-19 In The Rockaways

COVID-19 is not Rockaway’s first disaster, but its impact is harming our community. When disaster strikes New York, Far Rockaway inevitably ends up on the tragic list of hardest-hit neighborhoods. A multitude of systemic conditions of inequality has combined to put Rockaway at a higher risk of lasting harm when facing these types of extreme situations and public health crises. It is not the actions of community members that put Far Rockaway at such high risk, but the many layers of injustice that have plagued the Rockaway community for decades. A lack of healthy food options means that kids have few alternatives when school lunch becomes unavailable. A lack of access to sufficient healthcare resources makes Rockaway incapable of dealing with a sudden influx of new patients. Rockaway also has a disproportionately high number of nursing homes and eldercare facilities. Residents and employees of these facilities are at a higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus in our community. High-density public housing and geographic isolation create conditions where it is easy for contagions to spread. The conditions were ripe for tragedy.



Millions of NYC students rely on the free breakfast and lunch they receive at school. On Monday, March 16th, NYC schools shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While more than 500 schools continued to serve as meal hubs, the restrictions in place limited its benefits for many. For many, travel to and from the food distribution sites required the use of public transportation, and unclear information about operating hours and eligibility made it difficult for NYC’s most vulnerable populations to receive meals. As a universal free lunch district, NYC began providing $420 stipends to NYC public school families to cover the food they would have received at school. Payments were disbursed retroactively beginning in June and are designated to cover students’ food expenses through the end of the current school year (ending in June). However, for many Rockaway families experiencing poverty, even a couple of weeks waiting time can be a devastating economic crisis. Even with the funding they ultimately received, feeding a child three healthy meals a day on $5.70 is a tall task even in a neighborhood that is not a federally labeled food desert-like Rockaway. In the very first weeks of this crisis, Rockaway parents, many with continued work obligations, were already struggling to feed their families.



Far Rockaway is an incredibly tight-knit community, whose geographic isolation at the outermost tip of southeast Queens contributes to its small-town feel. 4% of NYC residents live in NYCHA but count for about 6% of citywide coronavirus fatalities. There are 78,575 of Rockaway residents on the eastern side of the peninsula who live in high-density public housing, in close physical proximity to hundreds of neighbors.



Rockaway residents suffer from a variety of preexisting health conditions at disproportionately high rates. These diseases include diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and asthma and any of these conditions can lead to a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Rockaway community has been speaking out about the vital need for increased healthcare access on the peninsula for years. The current healthcare resources are insufficient and COVID-19 has exacerbated this situation. 

Relatedly, many Rockaway residents are employed at healthcare facilities on the peninsula. In general, women of color are overrepresented in the caregiving field and this pattern is true in the Rockaway community as well. Given the peninsula’s geographic isolation, long commute times to access the rest of the city, and a general lack of options or access to job training resources, many residents are forced to take employment in nursing homes and other high-risk facilities. These unique factors have contributed to the devastation that Rockaway has experienced from COVID-19.



As of June 2nd, zip code 11691, at the easternmost end of the Rockaway peninsula, had 2,269 COVID-19 cases, while zip code 11697, at the western-most end of the peninsula, had 107 cases. The western end of the peninsula represents one of the highest-income, most exclusive, and conservative neighborhoods in NYC. Breezy Point, a gated community in the 11697 zip code, has lost three lives to COVID-19 compared to the 408 deaths in the 11691 zip code in Far Rockaway. While every death is tragic, the disparity between the eastern and western ends of the Rockaway peninsula is simply too stark to deny. However, this disparity is not surprising. In Breezy Point (11697), 4.6% of residents are non-white, and 3.1 % of the populations live below the poverty line. In Far Rockaway/Edgemere (11691), 61.1% of residents are non-white, and 21.4% of people live below the poverty line. Neighboring zip code, 11692, representing the Arverne/Edgemere area of Far Rockaway, has seen 590 COVID-19 cases, 77.4% of residents are non-white, and 25.4% of people live to belove the poverty line. The pattern is clear. If you are not rich and white, the higher your risk is of dying from COVID-19. 


Delayed City Response

As the weeks go on, COVID-19 is showing no signs of slowing. Far Rockaway’s first city-run test site opened in early June. Though residents have been able to get tested for COVID-19 at the local Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center, this locally-coordinated resource was not sufficient to meet the disproportionately high demand for testing in Rockaway. This is yet another sign that the city simply isn’t willing to invest in Rockaway and in disadvantaged residents who call Rockaway their home.

Throughout NYC, Black and brown New Yorkers are dying at roughly twice the rate of white New Yorkers. The reasons for this all share common threads of poverty, systemic racism, and a long history of city disinvestment. Seemingly everyone in Rockaway has lost someone to COVID-19. But it is not just COVID-19 that killed them. Systemic racism is the slow killer hovering behind every disaster, amplifying it and overwhelming those who are most vulnerable. Zip code, annual income, and skin color shouldn’t dictate a person’s chances of survival when facing a common disaster, but for thousands of Rockaway residents, it does just that. Moreover, our government is not collecting the data to fully understand and evaluate or equitably express the disparate impact of COVID-19 on low-income communities of color. This tragic pattern is seemingly invisible to those who are privileged enough to not have to face it as a part of their daily lives. Survival should not be a privilege of the wealthy, but it has been for decades. COVID-19 is just the latest, most blatant and extreme expression of the systemic racism and institutional injustices that have been killing Black and brown people throughout the country’s history. 

This post was written by Jazmine Outlaw

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