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As COVID-19 Hits Harder Among Minorities, What Can Chicago Do?


COVID-19, we know, is disproportionately affecting communities and people of color. Chicago's mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has called it a public health red alarm. She's working with community groups to create what she calls a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Auburn Gresham is a predominantly African American working-class bungalow belt neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. It's seen its share of troubles - high unemployment, gang warfare and then came the wrath of COVID-19. In March, Illinois officials announced a retired nurse who lived in the neighborhood was the first in the state to die from coronavirus. Patricia Frieson was 61. Her older sister, Wanda Bailey, died from the virus days later. Here on 79th Street, a drive-in test site opened up recently.

CARLOS NELSON: Oh, this is critical. You know, we've been screaming for weeks to get testing here in Auburn Gresham.

CORLEY: Carlos Nelson is the head of a community group, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation. He says it's been dire here with more than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.

NELSON: We are dying because we don't have the same resources or access to information.

CORLEY: And African Americans in Chicago have died from COVID-19 at a rate about three times higher than the city's white residents. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the racial gap is unacceptable and the result of a racist system that for generations left black neighborhoods with little access to health care, jobs, education and healthy food, conditions, she adds, that aren't unique to Chicago.


LORI LIGHTFOOT: We're seeing this manifest in large urban areas with large black populations all over the United States - Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit and other places are experiencing the same thing. But we are going to step up and do something about it.

CORLEY: Distributing free masks, hundreds of door hangers and thousands of postcards about COVID-19 are part of the effort by the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team. There's also a push to address long-standing issues like food insecurity, especially in places like Auburn Gresham where unemployment is nearly 30%.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Anyone without a ticket, I'm going to send them to the left.

CORLEY: Recently, hundreds of people on foot and in cars lined the blocks for a pop-up food pantry run by Carlos Nelson's group and the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Volunteers helped Carolyn Bowers load boxes of canned goods, meat and produce into a cart. Bowers works part time caring for seniors and says COVID-19 has caused lots of financial havoc.

CAROLYN BOWERS: I'm not able to service as many clients as I have been because a lot of the seniors, they're afraid to let the workers come into their homes.

CORLEY: She's been working eight hours a week instead of her typical 30 to 35. But Bowers considers herself lucky since she and her adult children live with her mother and everyone chips in. COVID-19 is now most prevalent in Chicago's Latinx neighborhoods. There's the same push to educate people about the pandemic with bilingual messaging and also a focus on workplaces where there's been a cluster of coronavirus cases. Unions are part of the outreach effort. Efrain Elias is the vice president of SEIU Local 1. It represents janitors, security officers and others.

EFRAIN ELIAS: These are workers who are heading to the front lines of this crisis to keep the public clean, safe and healthy every day. And our workers are not able to stay at home.

JAVIER FLORES: Hey. Good morning, guys.


CORLEY: The vacuum cleaner dies down as Javier Flores goes over the day's cleaning schedule with his maintenance crew at a nearly 200-unit residential building.

FLORES: Thank God we haven't had any type of cases here or any type of incidents whatsoever.

CORLEY: Flores says both he and his wife are essential employees. She is a cook for the Chicago Public Schools and prepares free breakfast and lunch for students that families pick up. The couple live with their two young daughters in Chicago's Belmont Cragin area. With more than 3,000 confirmed cases, it's one of the Latinx communities with the most coronavirus cases in the state. And that makes Flores anxious.

FLORES: My youngest daughter started coughing and telling me that her throat hurts, you know, and I can't avoid just thinking about, man, you know, so COVID-19?

CORLEY: His daughter was fine, and Flores hopes the city's racial equity work will help make that true for so many others in communities of color hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.