Disease is an equal opportunity offender — COVID-19 is no exception

Disease is an equal opportunity offender — COVID-19 is no exception

Disease is an equal opportunity offender. It doesn’t care about your family’s wealth, your income or your background. At least that’s supposedly the lesson we’re learning in the case of New Rochelle, N.Y., the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Empire State. Located in Westchester County, a place often touted as having one of the worst income disparities in the state, New Rochelle often brings up images of the extremely wealthy. 

It’s the home away from home for some of New York City’s wealthiest professionals who commute from the suburbs to the city on a daily basis. But the lesser known fact is that it’s also home to tens of thousands of poor community members.

During the coronavirus surge, an escalating pandemic, New Rochelle has been largely painted as an idyllic community beset by an unexpected outbreak. But the truth is the economic inequality of the region surrounding New York City, a city that often boasts one of the state’s and the country’s worst income and wealth inequality, is such that the most vulnerable populations who live on the margins of Westchester’s wealth may be the most at risk as well. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Many people, most of whom might not have heard of the small city in Westchester County before this disease, might be surprised to learn there is a substantial lower income population living on the edge of New Rochelle’s major wealth.

While the national poverty rate in 2017 was estimated between 12.3 and 13.9 percent, the current estimate in Westchester is still 9.44 percent, despite its veneer of wealth. That means that 89.8 thousand people in the county are living below the poverty line, where women between the ages of 25 and 34 are the hardest hit demographic. That’s a substantial population who stands to be at greater risk from the coronavirus outbreak. 

As disgruntled and somewhat fearful residents deal with the containment zone imposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which encompasses the north side of the city and is where the wealthiest residents live, little has been said about the close proximity of the city’s south side, where some of its most vulnerable residents live. 

Much attention has been brought to the burden working class and poor Americans must endure in the wake of COVID-19. While Americans are being advised to stay home, even work remotely, millions more don’t have the same opportunity. This includes people who can’t take time off work, don’t have paid sick leave, can’t self-quarantine or don’t have consistent access to health care or childcare, and who stand to be greatly impacted by the outbreak.

Despite its apparent wealth on the surface, the case in Westchester isn’t unique. In 2017, the national number of people without any form of health insurance was 8.8 percent, or 28.5 million people, while 91.2 percent had some form of insurance. In comparison, Westchester County is slightly ahead of the national average, with 93.8 percent of the population having some form of health insurance. But that still leaves an approximate 6.2 percent of its people uninsured in the face of a pandemic. 

ADVERTISEMENT

I grew up surrounded by the whiplash contrast of the economic and social segregation closely aligned with race that exists in Westchester. It’s a place where it’s not uncommon to see million dollar houses casting shadows on less affluent communities. But this secret hidden in plain sight isn’t one that only encompasses the county and the town’s present struggles. It’s a legacy that extends back in New Rochelle and Westchester’s history. 

Arguably the first time New Rochelle made such consistent national headlines was in 1961, when it became the first city in the Northern region of the country to require a forced closure of a segregated school. The “New Rochelle Decision” found that from at least 1930 onward, forced gerrymandering and discriminatory policies led to almost the entire black population of New Rochelle being consciously confined to one school. The city was back in the regional headlines again in 2001 when a fight against building a local Ikea galvanized residents. Although the project stood to displace residents in a community, the city council noted as blighted in 1999 the resulting backlash halted the plans. But the main argument of wealthy residents wasn’t the pending displacement of fellow residents, but concerns the increased traffic and pollution would deteriorate the quality of the town. In 2009, Westchester was at the center of headlines again when a federal judge ruled that the county had violated the nation’s fair housing laws. A review of Westchester’s housing policies by the Department of Housing and Urban Development stretched on for years, before finally being closed in 2017. 

If the history of the county and the town demonstrate anything, it’s that the divide between residents based on class and race is a story that runs long and deep. 

As New Rochelle and Westchester continue to make the national and international headlines, I can’t help but reflect back on the lesser known local histories that make up this place. As I continue to practice social distancing and other preventative measures, I also hope that state, county and city officials don’t forget Westchester’s vulnerable populations who so often go ignored. 

Danielle Bainbridge is a Professor of Theatre, African American Studies and Performance Studies at Northwestern University. She writes about history and culture.