The state Assembly and Senate are exploring solutions to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority communities.
“This hearing, I hope, will put both houses in our state legislature on the same page about what has happened so far, where things went wrong, and what we can do to support our minority communities and their healing,” said 31st senate district representative Senator Robert Jackson of Fort George, and chair of the Committee on Cities.
“These negative social and economic impacts already existed, and are now being amplified,” said Theresa Sanders, president of the Urban League of Long Island.
Assemblyman Fred Thiele co-chaired an over 11-hour-long joint public hearing May 18, where many community leaders aired their grievances, including Shinnecock Indian Nation Vice Chairman of the Council of Trustees Lance Gumbs.
Gumbs, who is also the northeast regional alternative vice president for the National Congress of American Indians, spoke about how severe the novel coronavirus has impacted the Navajo Nation and the pueblos in New Mexico, hitting them so hard they face the possibility of extinction.
“The impact on our communities is dire,” he said. “Luckily, here, we have avoided that through stringent measures that we have implemented to protect our people. We cannot survive the curve though — we must exclude that curve entirely.”
To combat the crisis, a food distribution tent was set up, where personal protective equipment was also distributed, but Gumbs said there’s only so much the tribe can do.
“Our territories are vulnerable in that we are surrounded, being in the Hamptons, by all of the people who came out from New York City,” he said. “So, we have some issues that are unique to our communities, but we also have issues that are unique to all minority communities, like the fundamental health care disparity.”
He said like many others, Indian communities have preexisting health conditions — high levels of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity — which puts his people at greater risk. Gumbs said one solution is to expand access to primary care and preventative health and wellness programs. Nutrition and food medicine are another area he said needs to be addressed.
“Health vulnerability now reflects generations in our community that have had lasting impacts through the colonization of food and the loss of our traditional foods,” Gumbs said. “We have also depended on outside donations, increasingly difficult as outside communities come to rely on the same food sources. Without these important nutrients, we are unsuited for any type of disease that comes to our community. In response to that, tribes in other places have fought for food sovereignty rather than live in food deserts.”
He said tribal communities need support to restore traditional food sources and means of protecting fisheries and guaranteeing access to water rights.
“The intertribal organizations are working on this,” Gumbs said, “and increased funding and support would help to create a healthier community both internally and externally for food gardens and other ways of producing food that would help all communities, not just out Native American communities in the health challenges we now face.”
The tribal leader, like many others, discussed communication, testing, transportation, and education issues. He said the digital divide — mainly access to internet — now that children are attempting to learn outside the classroom, has been another unique challenge.
Gumbs said he’s also disappointed there’s no Native American task force in New York charged with addressing the concerns and well-being of the state’s nine tribal communities.
“It’s been disturbing to us that no one has reached out from the state — the governor’s office or the state senate or assembly — to our Indian communities to see how we are faring,” he said, “especially with the large number of Native Americans we have in our community.”
Current data — rates of infection, hospitalization, and fatalities from the disease — shows the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on minority communities not just locally, but nationally. Through written and oral testimony, committees are seeking recommendations on how to approach and mitigate systematic inequalities through enhanced federal funding and appropriate policy initiatives. Local stakeholders also invited to discuss the issues in their communities included representatives from the First Baptist Church Riverhead and Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, among many others.
“A legacy of structural discrimination is putting our people most at risk of catching and dying from this virus,” said Frankie Miranda, president of the Hispanic Federation. “For us to finally come out ahead of this pandemic, we must incorporate community into all efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 and the destruction it has caused.”
He said ensuring culturally and linguistically-competent contact tracing is also critical.
OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez said her organization struggled to receive information from health care representatives at the onset of the crisis. None of it was being adequately translated for Spanish speaking members, so many were left in the dark with no clear guidance, which led to the novel coronavirus’s spread among those people. She said lack of transportation to and from testing sites, along with fears related to cost and treatment have also been issues. Domestic violence being up 30 percent in the state, coupled with the loss of housing, lack of food, anxiety, and isolation, has left her frightened for students struggling with mental health issues, worrying it will lead to addiction and suicide.
“Our pillars of focus center on advocacy and education,” Perez said. “This crisis has taken a sledgehammer to the already faulty systems that have not caught up with the region’s 30-year demographic shift, to show that our Latino population is at 20 to 25 percent.”
In April, her organization received support to meet the needs of nine East End school districts, collecting $700,000 worth of Chromebooks and Wi-Fi access for distance learning.
“This was not a Latino-only effort,” Perez said. “It was a way to fully express our belief that any time any student is deprived access to education we need to respond.”
Thiele asked these East End community organization leaders how the state can catch up to address of the issues. Gumbs and Perez said working with local school districts on programs and getting liaisons in schools and into communities could bridge the gap. Access not only to information, but supplies are important.
“We need enhanced communications, with access to language lines so law enforcement has the ability to communicate and relay information,” Perez said. “We need better ways to integrate parents of minorities into the schools. There are cultural and linguistic dynamics that not all schools are prepared for. We need to build this up. We need to make sure we also connect with the resources that are available. It’s been difficult to reach some of those adversely affected in minority communities.”