Mayor de Blasio visits health care workers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
Though the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged New York City, causing more than 17,000 deaths and untold devastation on the lives of residents, the impact has been worse for communities of color where existing disparities in economic status and access to health care have only been exacerbated. On Thursday, the New York City Council will hold a remote oversight hearing to examine those disparities, their causes, and the steps that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is taking to tackle the problem.
The hearing will be led by the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Council Member Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who himself contracted and recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“Our goal for the hearing is to understand how systemic failures and injustices in the healthcare system, housing, education and environmental degradation contributed to communities of color being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Torres said in a statement. “We'll hear directly from experts knowledgeable about how disparities in these areas exacerbated the spread of COVID-19.”
Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, “The Council is holding this hearing to hear from both experts and impacted communities about what is causing these disparate impacts so we can chart a path forward for a more equitable city that eventually closes these gaps of racial inequality.”
On April 6, the city shared initial data that showed black and Latino New Yorkers dying at much higher rates than white and Asian people. De Blasio expressed both a lack of surprise and indignation. Though equity, including racial and ethnic equity and good health care for all, has been a major through-line since his first mayoral campaign, he spoke of the disparate coronavirus impacts almost as inevitable. He pledged additional resources, testing, and an added public information campaign in the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
Nearly three weeks later, on April 26, de Blasio announced the creation of a Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity to monitor efforts to mitigate the outbreak in communities of color and to ensure that long-term recovery programs are focused on remediating existing inequities.
The task force was one of several the mayor announced to focus on a “fair recovery” for the city. He also said he would convene yet another Charter Revision Commission, the third in his time as mayor and the second created by him directly (another commission was created by the City Council through legislation).
“This crisis is not only about a virus; it’s about the fallout from hundreds of thousands of our neighbors losing their jobs and struggling to provide for their families. It’s about the outsized devastation communities of color are facing across the country,” de Blasio said in a statement. “I am not only calling on New Yorkers from all walks of life to help us get our city back on its feet – I am calling on them to join me in the fight ahead for a fair recovery.”
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams had called on the administration two weeks ago to ensure a coordinated response to the impact of the outbreak on communities of color. On Sunday, Williams praised the mayor’s announcement but issued words of warning.
“Who comprises this task force, how quickly they are empowered to act, and the force of that action are paramount,” Williams said in a statement. “Throughout this crisis, our government has moved too slowly on all levels, and now we need to be quick and decisive. The primary function of this task force cannot be to engage in a long, protracted process of deliberation and study, dwelling on how we got here. We know this disparity was created by a long history of systemic inequities and injustices. Additional delays waste time that the people being devastated by this crisis-- those who are deemed essential but treated as expendable-- just don't have. Ultimately, we need results, not a report, and the work of this task force must have a voice in and be supported by the city's budget.”
The mayor’s new racial equity task force quickly faced criticism. Along with Deputy Mayor Phil Thompson, de Blasio appointed his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, to co-chair the group, which was seen by some as a political move to boost her reputation as she considers a possible bid for Brooklyn Borough President in an election set for next year. McCray has also been the architect and face of ThriveNYC, the city’s beleaguered mental health initiative that has stumbled over a dearth of results for the hundreds of millions put into the program.
Among those who criticized the mayor for appointing McCray was Brooklyn City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who is already a declared candidate in the Brooklyn Borough President race. “We need people that are health experts at the front lines that are doing this work,” Reynoso said in a phone interview. “I think of Chirlane McCray as a very capable and intelligent person. I just don’t think she’s an expert in handling any of these issues that we're talking about.”
Reynoso said the administration should not have been caught off guard by the disparate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color. “My biggest concern is that the mayor ran on a campaign of a ‘tale of two cities,’ so to me it feels like he understood the gross inequities that existed before the coronavirus hit,” he said, “and I just feel like we've had six-and-a-half years to adjust to many issues in a significant or an aggressive way.”
He noted in particular that the communities with the greatest rates of asthma are the poorest communities of color in the city, so the administration should have taken specific precautions to protect those populations from a respiratory disease like COVID-19. “So for me it just is very concerning,” Reynoso said. “We needed to wait for data and even after we got the data, we had to wait some more.”