The Bronx: One Year and 4,954 Lives Later

A year ago was the day the world changed forever as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization as it rapidly spread across the globe.

For two months New York City was on edge because we knew it was a matter of when it would hit us and not if given the global nature of our city.

In The Bronx, many folks, myself included, were worried about how disproportionately the newly discovered disease would impact our borough given the fact that it was showing to aggressively attack individuals suffering from respiratory ailments, obesity, and other comorbidities—diseases which The Bronx is all too familiar with.

I took that as my cue to withdraw from my shared office space at The Hub and begin working from home again. Since mid February I had already begun to limit my time at the office and was avoiding physical contact with people including shaking of hands and hugging folks.

An empty Third Avenue at The Hub in March, 2020

I knew the coronavirus must have already been in circulation throughout the city and didn’t want to risk it.

A little over a week later, Governor Andrew Cuomo placed the state on “pause” resulting the closure of all non-essential businesses and urging New Yorkers to stay indoors to help stop the spread.

Walking through the streets of The Bronx and indeed New York City was eerie. It was a scene straight out of a sci-fi dystopian movie.

No traffic on the Major Deegan in late March 2020 during the beginning of the shutdown

Everything was closed, barely a soul on the streets could be found and you could walk in the middle of the street without worrying about a car running you down.

The only sounds you could hear were that of birds that were typically drowned out by the cacophony of city life.

And the sirens.

At first, the ambulances came and went but as the weeks progressed, they kept passing by with greater frequency and were almost ever present by the time we reached our peak in April.

By then, The Bronx had become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, something we knew would happen simply based on the poor health outcomes of our borough and decades of inequalities across all social spectrums.

For decades Bronx residents have had the highest rates of asthma, obesity, heart disease, diabetes in New York City and the state as well as some of the highest rates of compromised immune systems due to HIV. These rates are even amongst the highest in the nation and without a doubt contributed to the devastating toll of 4,954 that perished as a result.

To this day, our borough still has the highest death and hospitalization rates from COVID-19 and and second only to Staten Island in positive cases of the disease.

Usually bumper to bumper traffic on the Cross Bronx was virtually non-existent for a while during the beginning of the pandemic.

The fallout wasn’t just limited to the dead and the families left behind to pick up the pieces from their terrible losses but also an economic disaster.

Having already been the borough with the highest percentage of low income households, the hungriest borough, and the borough with the most residents facing eviction, as well as highest unemployment despite the lowest in decades, was yet another recipe for disaster for our borough.

As a result of the thousands who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic by way of businesses forced close or simply couldn’t survive thanks to the inaction of congress, unemployment reached epic levels above 25%, something unseen since The Great Depression and perhaps even more severe than that era.

An empty 161st Street in the heart of the civic center of The Bronx in the middle of the week when normally thousands of pedestrians and cars travel through per hour

And despite a moratorium on evictions, The Bronx has the highest rate of evictions filed and once the moratorium is lifted, tens of thousands of residents are in peril of losing their homes if something is done to rescue them and landlords.

But even through the loss both economic and that of loved ones, Bronx residents continue to persevere for it’s what we do best.

Mutual aid networks have sprung up across the borough to make sure no one is left without food with every day Bronxites delivering or securing food for their communities.

Food bank lines wrap around blocks almost daily now, something never before seen in our borough since perhaps The Great Depression.

Food pantry lines became a commonplace sight in our borough.

A year later and businesses are still not open to capacity, restaurants have either shuttered or are on the brink of closing their doors as our government in congress has abandoned us without sufficient aid.

But we will survive, it’s what The Bronx does and it’s The Bronx way. We’ve been through the bad times before and got through it thanks to the resourcefulness of our community and its leaders.

A quiet Fordham Road in late March 2020

We have to continue to do for each other what no one else will do for us. It’s the only way to move forward without leaving anyone behind.

All these lives lost could have been prevented had we been given the resources needed to better health care or simply access period.

There’s no reason for our borough to have continued to be not just the poorest but also the unhealthiest for so long. Our elected officials knew what ailed and continues to ail us but they haven’t done much to move the needle along and instead we’re left, as per usual, to do the work ourselves with extremely limited resources and funding.

We need to continue to educate our communities on the importance of the available COVID-19 vaccines as The Bronx continues to lag behind all boroughs except Brooklyn in terms of vaccinations.

As of today only 9% of Bronx residents are fully vaccinated compared to 14% in Manhattan and at least 18% of Bronxites have gotten one dose versus Manhattan where 27% of the population have gotten one shot.

Equitable access remains an issue and it cannot remain so if we’re to make sure no one is left behind.

Let’s hope that a year from today the picture is much brighter.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.