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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I got out of New York. My Brooklyn neighborhood became a shadow of its former self.

A man sits on a bus in New York on May 19. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Farai Chideya is a journalist, broadcaster and the author of six books.

The light through the spring leaves is achingly clear. Since renting a cabin in the Hudson Valley a month ago, I’ve seen deer, wild turkeys and even a fox carrying its tiny dark pup in its mouth.

I’ve always loved nature, but I didn’t come here for the beauty. At least five people have died of covid-19 in my building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a death toll I estimate as of writing to be nine times the average in New York City and 15 times that of New York state. My neighbors are predominantly black and Latino. I am a journalist, but they are home health aides, essential workers, small-business owners and retirees — in the crosshairs of the pandemic. Now we are divided into those who died of the disease and those who lived; those who stayed and those, like me, who left.

And so my life has become a split-screen pandemic. On one screen is the community I’ve called home for nearly a decade, ravaged not just by covid-19 but by the racial and socioeconomic inequities our nation ignores. On the other is the unfolding of spring on the multi-acre property I pace in between Zoom calls.

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Friends who work in public health told me to take this seriously early on. I ordered early enough to get KN95 masks and clear plastic gloves for myself and others, and stocked up on food. Having covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I figured it was better to have cash, supplies and a car on hand in case I needed them. My ability to prepare was a clue to where I fit in the puzzle of race, class and access to survival. I had both the knowledge network to take this seriously and the money to leave town.

Two weeks after New York went on pause, I drove to a state park near the border of Massachusetts and hiked for six miles. As I hiked, I cried. I wept for an America that has never lived up to many of its promises but is still rich with beauty and brilliance. I wept for the dead and the living. I wept for myself and my neighbors. I wept with fear and with rage.

To be black in America is to have lived a life of moral injuries, which others tell you to get over even as they continue to inflict them. I think of my grandmother, who discovered a pattern of hiring discrimination at her government job. She was denied promotions and raises for seven years but eventually prevailed. Before that, she had helped desegregate the local Girl Scouts. All of this was unpaid civic labor, the hard and costly work toward social equity that falls disproportionately to women and people of color. In the end, my grandmother died of colon cancer, undiagnosed for years while she asked her doctor to investigate her pain.

There are reams of scientific studies showing that black pain is ignored by medical practitioners. It is also ignored by society at large. I am so very sick of people saying that they can’t believe what America has become during the pandemic. The virus is the official cause of death for thousands of working-class black and brown Americans, but it is hardly the entire story. Wealth inequality and its relationship to race will kill us all if we do not face it head-on.

When I covered the Great Recession, black and brown communities were always the most in financial jeopardy — but white Americans were the angriest. Many white Americans could not imagine their government treating them as second-class citizens, while many Americans of color have faced that treatment generation after generation. What does not kill you may not always make you stronger, but you certainly become less surprised.

Today, white anger is visible in anti-shutdown protests, where some carry assault rifles and others Confederate flags. As the virus expands its reach, many predominantly white areas may find themselves new centers of the pandemic. Covid-19 could theoretically offer common cause between whites and nonwhites over our civic needs, but in an era of culture war, I’m not optimistic. Racial resentment has been a political weapon since this nation’s inception. In the decade since the last financial catastrophe, the sword of division has been forged anew in the fires of economic anxiety and wielded openly by members of our government.

Over the past two years, I have been increasingly anxious about the price America would pay for inequity. I thought we would see socioeconomic collapse when the next recession occurred. Having covered politics and people for so long, I felt the ratchet tightening, the comorbidities for life as we know it growing. The novel coronavirus is the spark for death in this pandemic, but the underlying crisis of inequality is fuel for the fire.

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I have decided to stay in the woods through the summer. I am making the best of pandemic life even while mourning my community. I am watching Americans who haven’t been hit by the virus celebrate summer, while my neighborhood becomes a shadow of its former self.

One of my neighbors texted recently to check in. I mentioned that of the people who passed, I knew only one personally. The rest of the deaths I know only by apartment number. Who were they? And — I hesitated to ask — had anyone else died?

She didn’t answer my questions. Instead, she just texted back, “The building is very quiet.”

Read more:

Michele L. Norris: The ‘us and them’ pandemic shows America is still impervious to black pain

David R. Williams: Stress was already killing black Americans. Covid-19 is making it worse.

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

Irwin Redlener: Disaster season is upon us. The pandemic changes everything.

Elliot Rosenberg: For this octogenarian, the lockdown feels like a case of polio-covid double jeopardy