Many wealthy New York City residents can ride out the coronavirus crisis in second homes. But needier citizens face a very different reality.

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A public school in Brooklyn, New York, closes until at least April 20 due to the coronavirus. (EPA-EFE/Alba Vigaray.)

By Charles Gorrivan

In New York City, where the coronavirus is infecting more and more people every day and media headlines depict disaster scenarios, the pandemic risks exacerbating the city’s extreme social divides.

New Yorkers with second homes and financial security have flown the coop. “Everybody is already gone, to Long Island or Connecticut,” an Upper East Side doorman who works in a pricey rental building said. “Most of the tenants left are the older ones.”

But New Yorkers with nowhere else to go will struggle to isolate themselves from the city’s large and dense population. And those with insecure sources of income, such as gig economy workers, restaurant servers and contractors, may have difficulty paying their bills.

Highlighting the challenges confronting the city’s working class, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he is very worried about those who are unable to pay rent or to buy food or medicine.

“The federal government needs to put money back in the hands of people,” de Blasio told CNN television on Tuesday. “We need direct income replacement at this point.”

Gig economy workers will struggle to make money.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Congress authorized employees who have worked at a company for at least one month to take paid emergency leave if they are diagnosed with COVID-19, are quarantined or care for someone who is quarantined or for a child whose school is closed.

While the legislation provides relief to employees of companies, it does not help self-employed New Yorkers, who numbered about 250,000 in 2012, according to the Center for an Urban Future.

“The problem is that a lot of those securities don’t cover workers who are part of the gig economy,” said Marrisa Baker, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences. “They don’t get any health and safety protection.”

These workers “are going to have fewer and fewer hours, and it’s going to be harder for them to make money and pay bills,” Baker said.

School closures will put many children behind.

With New York’s public schools shut down until at least late April, the pandemic risks exacerbating class disparities among the young. Students from wealthier families can learn via video conferencing technology and resort to private tutors, while such costly options are not widely available to the needier.

There are 114,000 homeless children in New York City, according to a 2019 report by the not-for-profit Advocates for Children of New York. Many of these children receive food at school.

The federal coronavirus law does empower the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve state plans providing emergency assistance to households with children who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals at schools.

Needier New Yorkers may be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. A 2015 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that individuals from impoverished neighborhoods were more likely to be taken to hospital for influenza than those from wealthier areas. The study cited population structure, lower vaccination rates and lack of access to healthcare as possible reasons for the higher rates of hospitalization.

“Pre-existing social vulnerabilities only get worse following a disaster,” said Nicole Errett, a public health expert who co-directs a center on extreme event resilience at the University of Washington. “This is such a perfect example of that.”

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Why is New York’s working class at greater risk from the coronavirus?
  2. What steps has the U.S. Congress taken to address COVID-19?
  3. If you were in government, what steps would you take to provide relief to self-employed workers?

Charles Gorrivan is a student at the Friends Seminary secondary school in New York City. He is an editor of the school newspaper and a member of the debate team. Outside of school, Gorrivan plays blues and jazz guitar, and enjoys reading publications like The Economist and The New Yorker.

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