Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Ensuring the COVID-19 Response Prioritizes the Needs of Vulnerable New Yorkers

highbridge rec center

Front-line workers (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the fragility of our region. It has compromised our physical and mental health, caused unprecedented disruption to our economy, and created a deep uncertainty about our future.

Across the state, the pandemic has revealed how inequitably our communities are prepared to cope with an emergency of this magnitude. The Department of Health in New York City released data reflecting an alarming nationwide trend: vulnerable groups such as low-income individuals, senior citizens, and people of color are suffering from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.

This is due not only to unequal access to health care, but also to an intersecting web of social disadvantages that form the most pervasive preconditions for any disease. Food insecurity, poverty, and housing instability are felt most acutely in the communities where the COVID-19 outbreak has struck the hardest.

As we consider the long road to recovery from this crisis, one thing is certain: we have an obligation to close the health-care gap in our state and create the conditions for a system that works better for all New Yorkers. 

Preventing this kind of pandemic in the future will require a response beyond a vaccine. We must make holistic investments to address the full spectrum of health care and health-related requirements facing our most vulnerable.

What can be done?

The good news is that this crisis has revealed our capacity to help those in need.

Hundreds of organizations across our state are dedicated to serving the diverse, health, and health-related essentials of vulnerable New Yorkers. These health-care providers, nonprofits, and community groups represent a broad coalition addressing the full scope of the need throughout our state. They require our support now more than ever.

As New York's largest health-care foundation, we at the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation are in a unique position to provide ongoing support to community-based initiatives that keep people safe and fed, help them return to work, and support healthy lifestyles.

On March 31, 131 years to the day Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini arrived in New York City and rolled up her sleeves to care for the poorest New Yorkers, we announced $50 million in emergency grants to address the many health-related needs of New Yorkers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In early May we issued our first round of emergency funding, nearly half of the $50 million allocation. We supported programs and workers at more than 100 organizations who, like our namesake, have rolled up their sleeves to provide immediate, essential services: personal protective equipment for health-care and social-service workers, emergency supplies at food banks and pantries, and hazard and/or overtime pay to frontline, direct-service health-care workers.

These organizations include the Food Bank of Central New York, Home Care Association of New York State, Catholic Charities Brooklyn Queens, JASA, Citymeals on Wheels, Iroquois Healthcare Association Inc., Circulo de la Hispanidad, Mental Health Associates of Franklin County, and the Greater New York Hospital Foundation.

Their efforts are saving lives.

As we begin the long recovery from COVID-19, we can also help save lives by supporting policies and programs across New York State that address the broader factors that exacerbated this public health crisis, especially among lower-income communities, communities of color, and elderly populations.

Looking to our soon-to-be-announced second round of emergency funding, the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation knows that health care is the sum of many factors. Our mandate has never been more urgent.

Moments of crisis don’t only beget immediate danger; they also offer long-term opportunity.

Ours now is to take decisive action to create a more equitable healthcare landscape. We must ensure that the most vulnerable and fragile among us aren’t forced to bear the brunt of the next crisis, and that all New Yorkers can enjoy healthier, more prosperous lives.

A small nun, Mother Cabrini left a large legacy. She and her sisters addressed immediate needs by standing in the backs of churches to hand out food, clothing, and supplies to families living in poverty. Beyond this, she had an expansive vision that included the founding of schools and orphanages to prepare the vulnerable to survive in a system that would not always catch them were they to fall.

We honor Mother Cabrini's legacy when we put into practice what she has taught by supporting both immediate and broader health needs through nutrition, housing, education, and employment programs that will outlive this deadly virus for generations to come.

Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo is Chief Executive Officer of the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization based in New York City and supporting programs throughout New York State. On Twitter @cabrinihealthNY.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.