Emotional East Flatbush COVID memorial serves as call for change

Sen. Chuck Schumer speaks at Community Board 17’s COVID-19 memorial ceremony on July 24.
Photo by Ben Brachfeld

East Flatbush residents and elected officials gathered Saturday for a memorial to those lost to COVID-19, which also served as a call for community members to get vaccinated and for the city to implement changes to prevent Black and brown neighborhoods from suffering disproportionate deaths again in the next pandemic.

Close to 200 people came out for the memorial, organized by Community Board 17 and held in front of the Lenox Road Baptist Church — among them, US Sen. Chuck Schumer, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and other area pols. The event featured speeches by electeds and faith leaders, as well as musical performances.

Speakers noted that communities like East Flatbush had suffered a disproportionate toll from the pandemic, owing to a rash of factors like the number of community members who are essential workers, poor health outcomes often arising from environmental racism, and inadequate health infrastructure especially as compared to richer, whiter communities.

“So many of those who got COVID in our community were risking their health for us,” said Schumer, who also referred to CB17 as “one of the very, very best” community boards in the city. “The frontline workers, whether they were health care workers, or bus drivers, or workers who got food to our homes. These brave people knew they were putting themselves in danger, but they continued to work for us. Now we must not forget them.”

The audience at the CB17 COVID memorial.Photo by Ben Brachfeld

Williams said that the fact that so many East Flatbush residents had kept working to keep the city afloat in its time of need meant that the city should give back to them, and ensure that the city not allow inequality to fester as it had before and during the pandemic.

“Whenever there’s an emergency, it’s our communities that come out to make sure this city keeps running,” Williams said to the crowd. “We need to make sure they get what they deserve. The one thing I want to make sure we understand moving forward, the one silver lining we can get out of this, is if we do not return to normal. That’s the one thing we might be able to do to honor so many of the people we’ve lost — it’s not to return to normal, because normal didn’t work for the vast majority of people in these communities.”

Though it wasn’t the hardest-hit neighborhood in the borough (data from the city and the New York Times shows the hardest-hit neighborhoods in terms of COVID deaths to be Starrett City, Coney Island, and Brighton Beach), East Flatbush nonetheless bore a disproportionate brunt from the pandemic. In ZIP code 11226, where the memorial was held, 381 people have died from COVID according to city data, higher than the borough and citywide average rate. And vaccination rates in the area are also lower than the city average.

Vaccination was on everyone’s minds at the memorial, with nearly all speakers urging residents to get the shot. State Sen. Roxanne Persaud said that even if residents choose not to get vaccinated, they should refrain from discouraging inoculation and/or spreading conspiracy theories about the vaccine which are playing a major role in vaccine hesitancy in Brooklyn and around the country.

“We’re asking everyone to do their part to ensure that we remain with the low numbers that we’ve had,” Persaud said. “We’re asking everyone, whether you like it or not, not to discourage anyone from having a vaccine. Don’t do that. You’re not helping our communities, our communities that were affected most by the pandemic. When you spread myths and incorrect information about vaccines that are helping our communities, you are doing a disservice to our community.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaks at the CB17 COVID memorial.Photo by Ben Brachfeld

For the event, the event’s organizers brought in a city vaccine bus, where community members could get a jab, as well as a testing van.

The memorial also comes as case rates start to spike again in the city, after having fallen for months, due to the proliferation of the Delta variant. The latest city data shows 1,074 confirmed and probable COVID cases being registered on July 22, a 526 percent increase over the 204 cases recorded on June 22, though still far below numbers seen at the pandemic’s peak.

The city is now beginning to implement vaccination mandates as case rates rise and inoculations lag: Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday that the city will require all municipal workers to get vaccinated or face weekly testing by mid-September, after announcing a mandate for public health workers last week and encouraging private employers to mandate the jab.

The rising case rate was not lost on CB17 chair Joan Alexander-Bakiriddin, who said that the board had been planning the event for a while but took COVID precautions into consideration in light of the citywide spike. She was concerned that the spike could have prevented them from holding the event, but rejected the idea that holding the event was premature.

“I don’t think it’s a premature thing,” Alexander-Bakiriddin told Brooklyn Paper. “We’ve been taking more precautions: we’ve decreased the number of chairs that we were gonna put out, we’re making sure that we adhere to protocols. As you see, we have for volunteers a sign-in station. For our community members, a sign-in station so we can trace the contact.”

Despite the spike, Alexander-Bakiriddin said she feels optimistic about the community’s trajectory at the moment.

“I feel very optimistic,” she said. “More of our people are saying yes to the vaccine, more of our people are paying attention, even if they haven’t received the vaccine. We’ve all received our vaccine, but we’re still wearing our face masks, because it’s not just about us, it’s about our community.”