There is a moment that stands out to me from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, before the first threads of data were released showing the true complexion and magnitude of this public health crisis.
I was going door to door in one of the buildings at Breevort Houses, a NYCHA development in Bedford-Stuyvesant not too far from where I live. When one senior opened her door and saw the mask I had for her in my gloved hand, she asked me with the biggest smile of appreciation and gratitude, “how did you know I needed this?” Not only did the question stand in stark contrast to skeptical critiques from naysayers who felt public housing residents were not a priority for personal protective equipment, it raised a follow-up question that lingered for weeks: How did so many other decision-makers not know NYCHA needed this?
Combating a public health crisis has two overarching components — intervention and prevention.
Intervention is primarily focused on ensuring our hospitals are properly equipped and staffed to address the influx of positive cases. In this effort, our health care heroes have performed amazingly in the face of the most challenging conditions, especially in underserved communities where critical supplies have been scarcer.
As for prevention — providing everyday New Yorkers with the resources and education to protect themselves and their loved ones to prevent hospitalization — it has been a tale of two pandemics. Communities of greater means, with the ability to telecommute and obtain what they need to be safe, have not seen the same infection rates as communities like NYCHA, where many of our essential workers and their families live. These developments are also home to a large population that is at prime risk for COVID-19: more than one of out every five NYCHA residents is 62 years or older, and many more are immunocomprised or suffer from underlying medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease.
This is why my team and I have personally delivered more than 50,000 packaged masks directly to NYCHA tenants and employees, chiefly donated by members of our Chinese-American community, which has been unfairly targeted by bias-based attacks amid this pandemic.
From Canarsie to Coney Island, Brownsville to Bushwick, we have seen the needs of New Yorkers who are depending on their government to deliver. We have heard the complaints of public housing residents who feel no one is listening to their cries for help, like the woman I met at Atlantic Terminal Houses in Fort Greene who was suffering from a weeks-long leak in her apartment that had led to mold, ruining some of her personal items and exacerbating breathing issues. We have felt the compassion of asymptomatic neighbors who asked how they could help.
I am glad our government partners have followed our lead. In subsequent days last week, the State promised to deliver face masks and hand sanitizer to developments across the city, and the City announced prioritized testing, additional PPE distributions, and wellness calls for vulnerable NYCHA residents, as well as expanded digital connectivity in several neighborhoods. Mayor Bill de Blasio personally joined me in distributing masks and food at Marcy Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant. This is a time for the city to see its leaders leading in the field.
COVID-19 does not discriminate, but our policies have. That includes the disinvestment and disrepair for which NYCHA residents have borne the brunt for decades. Even before this crisis, people living in public housing have often been treated as an afterthought. The unbelievable toll of this virus is now forcing us to reckon with the true cost of this neglect. Coming out of this pandemic, we must seriously reengage with the reform efforts overseen by the federal monitor; this includes the full buildout of NYCHA STAT, a vision I laid out a few years ago for a data-driven approach to asset management that would bring real-time accountability and transparency.
While we are still in this pandemic, we must ramp up testing capacity for all developments, use the city and state’s tremendous purchasing power to expedite the delivery of PPE, and ensure we are on the ground and responsive to residents’ concerns.