On a gray Easter Sunday in Corona, Queens, dozens of people, all of them masked, gathered outside Our Lady of Sorrows Church, the overflow crowd from the mass service underway inside.
The community could use the solace offered by Easter’s theme of renewal after a bruising year of trauma and loss. More than 500 people have died from COVID-19 in Corona, that’s more than any other ZIP code in the city. Several of the deceased attended this church, according to Delphina Olvera, who sold peach-colored roses and white lilies to passersby.
“There’s so much sadness,” she said in Spanish. “The truth is we feel so sorry and we don’t want to go through this situation again.”
As the community recovers from the pandemic, it faces serious challenges such as low vaccination rates, food insecurity, debt, and trauma. And many residents said they did not know who to turn to for help. In the midst of all this, there is a City Council race underway in which the incumbent Francisco Moya is facing a slate of challengers.
Speaking to Gothamist/WNYC, Moya said he’s fought for his district under incredibly difficult circumstances this past year, citing a pressure campaign to get the mayor to set up an emergency burial fund. And when so many people were dying at Elmhurst Hospital, Moya said he secured a donation of 100,000 KN95 masks for the medical staff and did his best to bring attention to what was happening.
“We took a video. We posted it up on Twitter. We really got nothing out of it,” he said. “And it was just more like we were trying to, like, bring awareness to say what is going on here.”
Olvera, who stayed home for five months out of fear of the coronavirus, said she didn’t know who Moya was but had a strong sense of what the community needed going forward.
d“The vaccine is what we need,” she said. “And we also need food because honestly, we’ve suffered a lot. We were left without jobs and with nothing.”
Vaccinations have been moving slowly in Corona. Moya blamed this on infighting between the governor and the mayor, and on people’s distrust of the vaccine.
“And that is why I fought so hard with this administration to start getting these pop-up sites that are going to be happening continuously every week until we bring up those numbers,” he said, alluding to new pop-up vaccination sites at local churches. “So I'm proud of the work that I've been doing.”
According to city data, 30% of Corona residents have received one dose of the vaccine and just 17% have received two doses. This is a dismal rate compared to Yorkville or the Upper West Side, predominantly white neighborhoods in Manhattan where up to 64% have received their first dose and up to 46% are fully vaccinated.
Racial disparities like this one are at the root of why Corona was hit so hard in the first place. Dr. Lynne Richardson, co-director of the Institute for Health Equity Research at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, said in addition to health factors there are social ones—access to safe housing, clean air and water, and quality health care—that affect outcomes.
“And because of the persistent, insidious impact of decades, actually centuries, of racism in this country, there are certain population groups who have not had access to the resources that they need to get healthy and stay healthy,” she said. “That was the uneven playing field upon which COVID landed.”
At the height of the pandemic, when she saw the high rates of death in Black and brown communities, she wasn’t surprised.
“They have been dying earlier, living sicker for many, many decades from a whole host of common chronic conditions,” she said, adding that now these communities have to deal with the trauma and stress caused by the pandemic.
According to a report by a local advocacy group, 25% of residents in Corona and nearby Elmhurst live in what’s considered overcrowded housing, more than double the city average. Last spring, when hospitals were overwhelmed, many people infected with COVID were sent back to homes where it was impossible to isolate. The report also said a disproportionate number of people in Corona and Elmhurst worked in low-wage service jobs adversely affected by the shutdown.
One of the candidates challenging Moya for the City Council seat, Ingrid Gomez, co-founded a mutual aid network to respond to the pandemic. A social worker who also volunteered for Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Gomez said the network used Facebook to receive food requests in different languages.
“So this area we would get tortillas we would get platanos you know, so it was very specific to the neighborhood,” she said. “And we were able to put all this food together and deliver it to the homes that needed it.”
Gomez is leading all the other candidates in fundraising, receiving more than enough small donations in the district to unlock public campaign funds from the city’s Campaign Finance Board. She blamed the current elected officials for not responding faster or more effectively to COVID-19, particularly when it came to shutting the city down in March of 2020.
“We could have been spared many, many, many, many deaths,” she said. “But that really falls squarely on the mayor and on the council and the council member.”
Moya responded by saying the decision to shut down belonged to Mayor Bill de Blasio, and said he urged de Blasio to close public schools in a statement sent a few days before the mayor made the final call.
On a recent Sunday, Gomez was out in the rain in Flushing, introducing herself to voters as they cast ballots in the race for President of Ecuador.
Ecuadorians are one of the largest immigrant groups in the district she’s running to represent. Carmen Hinostroza was in tears as she told Gomez that her husband caught COVID and died.
“I lost my partner,” she said in Spanish. “We were married 29 years.”
It turned out Hinostroza’s husband, who was a taxi driver, like herself, used to drive Gomez to her job at a school. She said she got behind on the rent and needed help catching up, and was upset because her son, who had asthma and worked at Target, had not gotten the vaccine yet.
“Corona should be first. We were the epicenter,” she said.
Hinostroza, who also did not know Moya was her current City Council member, said she reached out to Ocasio-Cortez when she couldn’t afford to bury her husband but got no response. Gomez promised to help her make contact.
They exchanged information and Gomez walked away with the promise of one vote in a district slowly trying to pick up the pieces and ensure that it never becomes the epicenter of a pandemic again.
Additional reporting from Afia Eama