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Deaths of Inequality: AOC on Black and Latinx Communities at Epicenter of Epicenter of the Pandemic

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As COVID-19 deaths spike in African-American and immigrant communities, almost a third of New York City’s infections are in Queens, one of the most diverse places in the world, and many in the hardest-hit neighborhoods are undocumented and working-class. We speak with Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the neighborhoods at the epicenter of the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, about how the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic is causing “deaths of incompetence,” “deaths of science denial” and “deaths of inequality.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. I’m broadcasting from New York; he’s in New Jersey. Here in New York, the coronavirus death toll has nearly reached 5,000. We’re spending the rest of the hour with U.S. Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the neighborhoods that have been called the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic here in New York City: Queens and the Bronx. Almost a third of the city’s COVID-19 cases are in Queens, which has been called the most diverse place in the world. Many of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in those neighborhoods are undocumented, working-class, working-poor. In Elmhurst, Queens, more than two-thirds of residents were born outside of the United States. The majority are black and Latinx. Queens has more COVID-19 cases than any other borough, yet it has fewer hospitals than its neighbors, with only three major medical centers. The New York Times reports, “Queens has 1.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people, compared to 5.3 in Manhattan.”

Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district also includes Rikers Island jail, where at least one prisoner has died of complications of COVID-19. Hundreds have tested positive. Rikers currently holds just over 5,000 people, many there for parole violations or serving less than a year for a low-level offense. Many are there in pretrial detention; they simply don’t have money for bail.

On Friday, Congressmember Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, quote, ”COVID deaths are disproportionately spiking in Black + Brown communities. Why? Because the chronic toll of redlining, environmental racism, wealth gap, etc. ARE underlying health conditions. Inequality is a comorbidity. COVID relief should be drafted with a lens of reparations,” she wrote.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us, Congressmember Ocasio-Cortez. Can you start out by talking about your district? We have heard a lot about Elmhurst Hospital, as we should. The doctors and the nurses, like so many around the country, and the sanitation workers in these hospitals are not properly protected. We have not heard as much — and there may be a deep connection here — about the community that it serves. In just the last week, I’ve heard about three men — two Mexican brothers who died in their home, not even in the hospital, their bodies just recently taken out; a third died in the hospital — but fears of even going to hospitals, knowing what could happen to them, who have been hard-working members of our communities for so many years. Talk about your community.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yes. No, thank you, and thank you for the opportunity to discuss the actual community surrounding Elmhurst Hospital and Elmhurst, Queens. This is one of the most working-class and, as you mentioned, blackest and brownest communities in New York City. It is extraordinarily dense. Even for New York City, it is a very dense and densely populated community.

It’s no surprise that, you know, in the wake of this pandemic, right after the Trump administration announced its public charge rule, which basically said, if you are undocumented and seek public services, public healthcare, SNAP, WIC, etc., then you will be essentially put on a fast track to either denial of citizenship or outright deportation — and so, now that we have this pandemic and it is hardest-hitting in communities that are heavily immigrant and also with strong historically black communities, as well, that people are either afraid to go to Elmhurst Hospital out of the cost or out of sheer fear that they will be put in the public charge list.

Now, after we pushed the Trump administration, we were able to secure — we were able to secure confirmation from the administration that they would not refer COVID-related cases and treat them under the public charge rule, but there’s so much confusion already that many members are scared to go. These are the same people who are preparing our food. They’re the same people who stock our grocery shelves. They’re the same people who deliver our goods. And the idea that we can deny them care, as though the pandemic will not affect just in greater ways because of that, is naive, and it’s unscientific.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congresswoman, I wanted to ask you about this enormous racial and ethnic disparity in the cases and especially in the deaths that are occurring. As you mentioned and as Amy mentioned earlier, the areas of Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona are the epicenter of the epicenter. But the Bronx, a portion of which you also represent — your congressional district stretches out there — has also been hard hit. According to the — as of 10:59 last night, according to the tracker that the city website produces for New York City every day, there were 679 people, Bronx residents, who had died of coronavirus. That’s more than twice as many as have died in Manhattan — only 302 in Manhattan — even though the Bronx is significantly smaller in population than Manhattan. And you’ve got a situation where the Bronx is 16% of the population of the city, but it represents 24% of all the deaths. So we have a situation here where, even in Brooklyn, the areas of Brooklyn where most residents are dying are in North Brooklyn in black and brown communities. How do you assess the city and the state’s response to what is clearly a disparate impact of this epidemic?

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yes. Well, as I had mentioned earlier, inequality, environmental racism, these are preexisting conditions. And when you have a pandemic, similar to what we saw with Hurricane Maria, when you have a natural disaster or an event like a pandemic hit communities that have already been ravaged by weakened healthcare systems, weakened infrastructure — the South Bronx has one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the country. When we talk about environmental racism, we’re talking about illegal dumping. We’re talking about concentrating waste sites and concentrating highways and trucking zones through the poorest communities in the country, and the blackest communities and the brownest communities. And so, we already have an issue of extreme and acute concentration of respiratory illnesses in the Bronx. That is largely due to the trucking that comes through here, through the environmental inequalities that come through here.

And so, when you have the Cross Bronx Expressway, which was a notorious project of racism by Robert Moses, the way that he tried to concentrate and push these communities and design these communities through, when you have the toll of health inequities, and, on top of that, these are our frontline workers, where you see our frontline workers living are where you see — are the same places where you are seeing COVID cases spiking. Black and brown workers are overwhelmingly part of this frontline. They are the grocery store workers. They are the delivery workers. They are hospital workers, including janitorial staff. And so, when you have this pandemic layer on top of it, when you pair that to the unequal access to care, when you pair that with ratios of hospital beds far lower than more affluent communities, this is what you get.

And so, when it comes to the city’s response, you know, I believe that the city is doing absolutely everything that it can, but we also have to acknowledge that there are two entirely different starting lines that these communities are starting with. And so, we’ve been working very hard, but also, when we don’t push for things like rent and — full rent and mortgage moratoriums, you push these workers to go outside, because they feel a pressure to make their rent. And they may go out and take work. They may take work under the table in order to make ends meet. And so, without this economic relief, it also adds to the public health issues that we currently face.

AMY GOODMAN: After break, we’re going to talk with you about the stimulus package, about what you’ve called the “corporate slush fund,” that $500 billion, and how it will be monitored. But I want to ask you about another area of your district, which also goes to you as a congressmember dealing with prisons and jails all over the country, but Rikers Island, the whole jail system there in New York — what, Rikers Island, 4,600, 5,000, in the New York City jail system. Are people still being sent there for pretrial detention simply because they don’t have enough money to post to stay out of jail? And what’s happening? We see hundreds of both prisoners and staff have tested positive. There’s already been a death. What about the calls for decarceration, for releasing prisoners, not only at Rikers, but then around the country now? Tell us where they stand.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yes. We’ve been approaching and we’ve been calling very strongly on the governor and the mayor to take a strong decarceral approach to Rikers. That first death — you know, not that any death on Rikers is merited, no matter what anyone has done, but that first death wasn’t even for a criminal offense. It was for a simple parole violation that was noncriminal in nature. And so, what we’re seeing here is that the city is packing Rikers with individuals, and they know it’s a tinderbox. It’s a tinderbox for the workers. It’s a tinderbox for incarcerated people.

And we have to demand — not just in Rikers, but across the country, we need to increase our demands for elderly clemency, to end pretrial detention as much as possible, to make sure that we not arresting people for low-level arrests. We’ve been placing inquiries to see if there are people being moved to Rikers. We believe that the mayor is trying to take off low-level arrests, but there are still so many individuals that do not belong there.

And that also goes for our immigration detention facilities. ICE was — knowing that this pandemic was coming, knowing everything that was happening, ICE was still conducting raids in sanctuary cities. And, you know, this is part of a larger political project by the president to punish those cities that act as sanctuary cities for immigrants. And so, ICE, as well, is knowingly packing these detention facilities with people who, again, have not committed crimes but are merely there for civil proceeding reasons and who are merely awaiting a court date.

And so, there’s no reason that these jails should be filled. There’s no reason that they should be packed. We must pursue a decarceral agenda in order to really fulfill our responsibility as public servants.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask you, just before we go to break, Congressmember — you confronted an ICE agent at LaGuardia Airport — if you could talk about this, what exactly was happening — who was transporting immigrant children? Can you explain what happened?

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yes. So, this happened several weeks ago. I got a call in the evening from our local — one of our local immigration community organizations, New Sanctuary Coalition. And they had gotten a tip from a worker that ICE was transporting six minors, six children, into New York City from a different — you know, from Texas. And we were extraordinarily concerned, and so we decided to hop into a car, drove straight to LaGuardia Airport, and I just waited at the gate. And after some time, an ICE agent came out with six young boys.

And they were being transported into New York City. This was after the pandemic had erupted. This was after the Pentagon already started banning much domestic travel for members. And here we have ICE transporting children into a pandemic zone, into the most concentrated area of the most concentrated city. They were flying into LaGuardia. They weren’t even flying into JFK or Newark. They were flying into the shadow of East Elmhurst — or, Elmhurst Hospital.

And so, you know, I confronted the agent. They were transporting these children into ORR facilities here in New York City where staffers have been confirmed to have COVID-19 cases. And after inquiring, we started to make a lot of noise about this. ICE, since then, has started to place some restrictions, but not nearly enough, to protect these children and to protect all immigrants in our system.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, a reporter asked Trump if undocumented immigrants are welcome at testing sites, and can they be tested without fear of being reported to immigration authorities. This is what President Trump said.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The answer is, yes, we will do those tests, because I think, in that case, it’s important. I think that if — you could call — you could say “illegal alien.” You could say “illegal immigrant.” You could say whatever you want to use your definition of what you’re talking about. We’re all talking about the same thing. Yes, we will test that person, because I think it’s important that we test that person. And we don’t want to send that person back into wherever we’re going to be sending the person, whether it’s another country or someplace else, because, you know, we’re now bringing them right out of our country. But, yeah, we will test those people.

AMY GOODMAN: Wow! I mean, so there you have President Trump talking about, “Yeah, test them before you send them out.” Overall, your response to President Trump, his antagonism against any kind of criticism, the well-known, documented lack of tests, lack of PPE, protective gear for people who work in hospitals, and now this, saying, “Sure, test them before we deport them”?

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, overall, you know, not just President Trump, but this entire administration, knew what was coming. Trump knew this pandemic was coming. The military knew this pandemic was coming. The CDC knew this pandemic was coming. HHS, Health and Human Services, knew this pandemic was coming. And there was a structural, but also universal, refusal to acknowledge and, more importantly, to act.

And this pandemic is — you know, and the casualties that we are seeing are, again, not just due to coronavirus. There are people dying unnecessarily. As you mentioned earlier, there are people not just dying in hospitals. In New York City alone, we are seeing 200 to 300 people dying in their homes a day — per day in New York City, inside their homes, in addition to the hospitalizations. These numbers that you’re seeing, all in all, many of them are confirmed coronavirus cases. As you mentioned, many people do not have access to tests, so a lot of these deaths that you are seeing, there are many more that are uncounted, that are being counted as pneumonia or being counted as other causes of death, because those people were not able to get a COVID-19 test.

And so, these additional deaths, many of them are unnecessary. They are deaths of incompetence. They are deaths of science denial. They are deaths of inequality. And so, it’s important for us to acknowledge how unnecessary the level of crisis that we are at right now, that is due to the incompetence of this administration, that is due to the lack of responsiveness of this administration.

And when it comes to the particular cruelty to undocumented immigrants, it is also a form of denial of the fact that many of these undocumented people pay taxes, they fund our public schools, and they fund the very public health system that they are being denied access to right now, through the billions of dollars of taxes that they pay. Billions more, by the way — these undocumented workers pay billions more in taxes than Facebook does, than Amazon does and than many other corporations do. And so, when it comes to contributions to our public systems, they do far more than these corporations do. And it’s extraordinarily important that they have safe access to our public health system.

And by the way, it shouldn’t just be for COVID-19 cases. Our public health system should be free at the point of service for every single person in this country. There are folks that are saying, “Oh, you’ll get paid sick leave if it’s COVID-19-related,” as we’re seeing with Amazon. They’ll take your fever. If you don’t have a test, then you will not be paid — you will not receive paid sick leave. We should have universal systems where every person can see the doctor free of charge when they need to see it, so that they can get the care that they need. That is what it means to live in an advanced and modern and humane society. And so long as we don’t do that, we have not earned the right to call ourselves one.

AMY GOODMAN: We are speaking to Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We’ll be back with her in 30 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: That is Dr. Elvis Francois singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He’s from the Mayo Clinic.

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