By Mario Villar and Alex Segura
New York/Los Angeles, Apr 24 (efe-epa).- Carlos Tapia lives in the New York City borough of the Bronx and personally knows more than 30 people – family members and friends – who have contracted Covid-19.
That concentration of cases in one social circle is not an anomaly and instead highlights an overlooked aspect of the pandemic: it is disproportionately affecting people in low-income neighborhoods of the United States, and minorities in particular.
Though it has been touted as the “great equalizer,” figures from most US cities affected by the pandemic show that the lower a population segment’s income the greater people’s risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus and dying of Covid-19.
In New York City, the epicenter of this respiratory illness in the US with approximately one-fourth of the more than 50,000 deaths nationwide, the five zip codes with the highest rates of positive tests (all located in Queens) have an average per-capita income of less than $27,000 a year, considered below the poverty line.
By contrast, the five zip codes with the smallest proportion of positive tests (all located in Manhattan) have an average per-capita income of $118,000 annually.
That situation is repeated nationwide with the notable exception of Los Angeles, where the rates of positive tests are higher among the affluent, according to official figures.
In the Big Apple, the three Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Corona and East Elmhurst are the focal point of the health emergency in New York state, and by extension the US and the entire world, says Colombian-American lawmaker Catalina Cruz, who represents those districts in the state legislature and says poverty is the main contributing factor.
That section of the city is considered one of the most diverse parts of the planet, a group of districts where immigrant families from more than 100 countries scrape out a living and whose overstretched hospital – with a refrigerated truck at the door to store the bodies of those who died of Covid-19 – has become a symbol of the crisis.
The illness has spread like wildfire in that densely packed area, where many residents are packed together in small apartments, partly for cultural reasons and partly out of necessity.
“We live with our entire family. We live with our grandfather, with our grandmother, with our uncle,” Cruz told Efe. “A single person gets sick and the illness spreads through the whole house.”
Containing the virus is a much more difficult task when almost no one is able to stop working. In that sense, the confinement measures and guidelines strictly observed in other parts of the city are having virtually no impact in these districts.
In the Bronx, Tapia has lost two of his uncles to the coronavirus, one of them a 72-year-old taxi driver who continued to work out of economic necessity until falling gravely ill.
On the other side of the country, Jessica Asaro, a private chef who sells prepared meals to affluent residents of Los Angeles and has seen her business flourish during the pandemic, lives on the border between the low-income neighborhood of East Hollywood and the high-income neighborhood of Los Feliz and is well aware of the socioeconomic gap in her city.
She spoke to Efe about the disparity in people’s ability to get tested for the coronavirus and said that has skewed the official figures on cases per city area.
“I have a client that I shop for who lives in (the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of) Malibu, and in Malibu they actually have testing set up, and they have all of these signs of where you can go for drive-thru testing, and I haven’t seen anything in my area for that,” Asaro said.
“I mean, from everything that I understood, they weren’t even testing you even if you went in with certain symptoms. Unless it was the most extreme version, they wouldn’t … use a test kit on you.”
Professor Karin Michels, chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of California at Los Angeles’ Fielding School of Public Health, echoed that assessment and said a true picture of the coronavirus situation will not be possible until much more testing is conducted.
“Rates in the very wealthy areas of LA such as Bel Air and Hollywood Hills are reported at around 100 per 100,000 residents, whereas lower-income areas seem to have rates of 25 per 100,000 residents or even less. This picture is very misleading though due to access to care and testing which is unequally distributed,” Michels said.
In New York, the situation in terms of coronavirus prevalence per area of the city is believed to be more accurate due to the much higher number of hospitalizations and deaths.