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Coronavirus deals heavy blow to hard-working Elmhurst

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As an elected official in the heart of New York City’s coronavirus outbreak, Francisco Moya has been performing the same chores as other politicians these days: pleading for desperately needed medical equipment and encouraging residents to adopt social distancing measures.

But there are other tasks, too, in the Elmhurst section of the borough of Queens. Earlier this week Mr Moya, who represents the working-class neighbourhood in the city council, was trying to raise money to help a young boy pay for his mother’s cremation. She succumbed to coronavirus a few days ago. His father was in intensive care and not expected to recover from the virus.

“The hospital is saying: ‘You’ve got to pick up the body!’” Mr Moya recounted.

New York City typically gives the needy $900 in assistance to pay for cremation or burial. But that is only for legal residents with valid US social security numbers. This family — like so many others in the area — is undocumented.

“It makes it very difficult,” Mr Moya lamented.

For New York’s wealthy, the coronavirus pandemic has been a time to seek refuge in second homes in places such as the Hamptons and consult concierge medical services.

But in places such as Elmhurst, the virus is ravaging the working poor — precisely because they are poor. Residents tend to be packed together — often several generations — in small apartments, with nowhere else to ride out the storm. Many are risking their health to work frontline jobs at supermarkets and warehouses because they need the money. And many, like the boy who came to Mr Moya’s attention, are illegal immigrants with no access to government support.

“They have to go to work,” Mr Moya said of his constituents, who have made up a large share of the 1,377 coronavirus deaths recorded in the New York City borough of Queens so far. “These are the ones who are delivering our food, who are manning all the registers at the supermarket.”

The plight of the poor and minorities came into focus this week as New York and other states began to break down coronavirus fatalities based on ethnicity and race — as opposed to just age. What they found is that the virus has taken a disproportionate toll on African-Americans and Hispanics.

This has prompted a public health debate about whether that is because such communities tend to have worse underlying health — with a higher prevalence of ailments such as asthma and diabetes — and so end up dying in higher numbers after they are infected; or whether they have less access to healthcare; or are forced by economic necessity to work jobs that have suddenly become perilous; or some combination of these and other factors.

“It always seems that the poor people pay the highest price,” Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, who is a Queens native, observed on Wednesday as he promised a new effort to study the matter.

A patient outside Elmhurst Hospital © AP

Elmhurst, Corona and the other nearby neighbourhoods that comprise Mr Moya’s district are among the most diverse in America, with more than 200 nationalities represented and more than a hundred languages spoken. The unemployment rate is low, but so are the wages. As a consequence, almost a fifth of households are living at or below the poverty line, according to a recent study by the Citizens Committee for Children of New York.

When coronavirus arrived, Rafael Jose, a local realtor, could hear it before he could see it. “You’re hearing sirens all through the day. It’s constant,” said Mr Jose, who lives two blocks from Elmhurst Hospital. “We’re right smack in the middle of it.”

So many people have succumbed to coronavirus in the area that the funeral homes are full and some have stopped answering their phones. “I’m here until midnight and I’ve worked every day for the last month,” Joe Neufeld, a local funeral director, said during a brief pause on Wednesday.

Outside the Elmhurst Hospital, a public facility that dates back to 1832, officials have erected blue and white tents and metal guard rails to cope with a daily procession of the sick.

The hospital has for years grappled with the challenge of treating patients from the far corners of the earth and the urban poor shunned by the city’s private hospitals. Its translators speak everything from Pashto to Hebrew. Even before the crisis it was regularly running at 80 per cent capacity — with emergency room waiting times among the city’s longest — and was the subject of occasional labour complaints from its nursing staff.

When coronavirus hit, it was quickly overwhelmed, with reports emerging of patients stacked up in corridors and video testimony from a frightened doctor pleading for equipment. President Donald Trump, who also grew up in Queens, took note of the tragedy.

“You would think it was happening anywhere in the world but New York,” said Mr Moya, who was born at Elmhurst Hospital after his parents immigrated from the same part of Ecuador and then found each other in Queens at the 1964 World’s Fair. 

For all its flaws, the hospital inspires local loyalty. “This really is the hospital that everyone uses,” Mr Moya said. 

Among those patients was a friend and co-worker of Elizabeta Salinovic, 45, who came to Queens 12 years ago from Montenegro. Ms Salinovic worked the night shift with the man, cleaning office buildings in Manhattan. They would often ride back to Queens together in the early morning hours when the rest of the city was asleep.

Two weeks ago, he texted her from the hospital: “I’m sick,” Ms Salinovic recalled the message. It was coronavirus. She feared that she, too, was infected and may have passed the virus to her asthmatic son.

“It’s a very scary situation,” said Ms Salinovic, who had not heard from her friend since Tuesday. Meanwhile, she dismissed the possibility of staying home from work to protect her family until the pandemic had passed. Her husband had lost his construction job three weeks ago, and her cleaning job was now providing the family’s health insurance.

“I have to have healthcare,” she said, “and a pay cheque.”

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

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