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Riding the bus in a pandemic

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Riding the bus in a pandemic

In the middle of a pandemic, mostly low-income Washingtonians are riding the bus. It is a lifeline through poorer areas of the nation’s capital where food and services can be hard to reach. And it tells the story of a crisis that existed long before the coronavirus hit.

The District is split into eight wards and is deeply stratified by race and socioeconomic status. The W4 bus traverses Wards 7 and 8, where more than 90 percent of residents are black. Even before the pandemic, 1 in 4 Ward 7 residents and 1 in 3 Ward 8 residents lived below the poverty line.

As the city ordered schools and businesses shut, I rode the W4 to ask how the coronavirus had impacted passengers’ lives.

The route of inequality

Median household income

0

25

50

75

100 +

$ Thousands

Washington D.C.

White

House

W4 bus

route

Sources: U.S. census; Open Data DC.

The route of inequality

Median household income

0

25

50

75

100 +

$ Thousands

Washington D.C.

White

House

Ward 7

W4 bus

route

Ward 8

Sources: U.S. census; Open Data DC.

Washington D.C.

W4 bus route

White

House

The route of inequality

Ward 7

Median household income

0

25

50

75

100 +

$ Thousands

Ward 8

Sources: U.S. census; Open Data DC.

‘Why did this happen?’

Tony L. Orr, 47, was furloughed from both his part-time jobs due to the coronavirus. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

The people waiting at Alabama Avenue are mostly out of work. Tony L. Orr, 47, was furloughed from both his part-time jobs. He had earned $14 an hour as a night security guard and $11.50 an hour as a food worker at FedEx Field.

“Why did this happen? My life was straight,” Orr says through tears. “I don’t have anything but $28 to my name right now.” He’s filed for unemployment benefits but has yet to see a check. He worries about his three children and his ill mother, whom he calls his village.

Annette Patterson, 54, lost her job as an Avis driver in late March. She filed for unemployment but is also having trouble getting benefits. “I think I did it wrong,” she says.

Patterson and Orr are among the 26.5 million people who have filed for unemployment aid from March 15 to April 18, a level of job loss not experienced since the Great Depression.

Annette Patterson, 54, lost her job in late March. She is one of 26.5 million people who have filed for unemployment aid from March 15 to April 18. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

‘I can’t afford to get sick’

Alfreda Thompson, 64, is one of the lucky ones. She still has her job. I met her at the bus stop outside the Giant where she works in the pharmacy. Covid-19 spurred panic buying at the store, which is one of just three full-service grocery stores serving about 160,000 people across Wards 7 and 8.

“I can’t afford to get sick,” says Thompson, whose son was recently laid off. “I need to pay for my house and stay as healthy as possible.”

At least 1,500 grocery workers have tested positive for the coronavirus nationwide, and at least 41 have died. They are among the essential workers, such as cleaners, home health-care aides and bus drivers, who have been glorified by politicians and celebrities, yet often do not earn a living wage, paid sick leave or health benefits. They cannot afford to stay home or even social distance.

The W4 bus moves through historic Anacostia, which was home to the late abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In the coronavirus era, passengers enter from the back. The front door is blocked to protect the driver. When I rode the bus in the early days of the shutdown, few people were wearing masks or worried about the virus.

The driver can refuse passengers if there is not enough space for riders to keep a safe distance apart, but sometimes the bus fills up. Services have been reduced significantly so the ride and wait for the bus can bring a crowd.

‘I need more food’

A man holds his groceries on the W4 bus in Washington. There are only three full-service supermarkets for about 160,000 residents of Wards 7 and 8. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

As the W4 passes Benning Road, I find Nakia Dorsey, 43, on her way to CVS to get medication.

“I’m very nervous,” she tells me about riding the bus. “My asthma is out of control.”

Dorsey’s 16-year-old daughter with special needs also has asthma, an underlying condition that could make them more vulnerable if they get the virus.

African Americans suffer higher rates of asthma, diabetes and heart disease in the United States than other races. The pandemic has sharply underscored the disparities. Early data show African Americans dying at disproportionate rates of the coronavirus across the country. In the District alone, 80 percent of covid-19 fatalities are black, yet African Americans make up 46 percent of the population.

Nakia Dorsey, 43, at the bus stop outside her home in Southeast D.C. She and her daughter have asthma, an underlying condition that makes them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

Asthma is not Dorsey’s only concern. With her daughter home from school, her food stamps are running low. Her daughter is one of nearly 30 million children in the United States who rely on schools for free or reduced-cost meals. With schools closed, many children are at risk of going hungry.

“Muriel Bowser needs to do something about the food stamps,” Dorsey says of D.C.’s mayor. “She needs to do something because school is out. … I need more food.”

In “the great Ward 8,” as some residents call it, local organizers and nonprofits are responding to the need with urgency, partnering with D.C. public schools, businesses and city government to distribute food across the capital. But Dorsey says it’s not enough. Food banks across the country are facing a similar challenge.

‘I’m praying to the man upstairs’

The District is split into eight wards and is deeply stratified by race and socioeconomic status. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

What does it look like to live through a pandemic? It’s business as usual for low-wage, essential workers. The “haves” are sheltering at home while the “have-nots” are keeping the city running.

When the pandemic is over, the W4 bus will carry many of the same stories. Hunger in a food desert, wages too small to endure a crisis, sickness that will bankrupt a family.

We can celebrate underpaid workers as heroes, but a vaccine will not fix racial and class divides. The residents of Wards 7 and 8 will battle health and financial crises long after the pandemic is over.

Tony L. Orr, 47, with a tattoo of the names of his three children, whom he calls his village. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

For now, some of those I meet on the W4 bus hold on to their faith to get by.

“As long as God wakes me up in the morning during this coronavirus,” says Dorsey, “I’m going to roll with the punches.”

“I’m praying to the man upstairs. I’m leaving it in God’s hands,” says Orr, standing at the bus stop with a bag of Popeyes he’ll share with his family. “Just like in the Bible. When they were praying for fish and bread, they got it.”

Watch and read more:

Video: This is why some black men fear wearing face masks during a pandemic

Video: Covid-19 threatened to kill this D.C. restaurant. It turned into a community kitchen instead.

Video: This doctor closed his practice because of the coronavirus. Here’s how he’s caring for patients.

Bill Gates: Here are the innovations we need to reopen the economy

Michele L. Norris: The coronavirus is amplifying the bias already embedded in our social fabric

Kenneth R. Alleyne: We must address the social determinants affecting the black community to defeat covid-19

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