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On the corner of 139th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, men in black hoodies emblazoned with “Speak Peace Forward” stood at a folding table, handing out masks and gloves in plastic baggies last Friday.
With them was Iesha Sekou, the founder of Street Corner Resources, a nonprofit organization tasked by City Hall to help decrease gun violence in the neighborhood. She moved deftly around the table to flag passers-by in front of the local Key Food.
She pulled at the bright blue-and-pink scarf wrapping her face and called out to a young woman strolling by.
“Sister! Sister! Where’s your mask?” shouted Sekou. “Protect yourself!”
The woman didn’t stop.
After nearly 15 years asking young people to put down their guns, Sekou and her “violence interrupters” are now asking youth to arm themselves — with masks, gloves and social distancing.
“It’s just like, I know if I’m on the corner with 20 kids, there’s a gun somewhere,” Sekou said. “I assume that. It’s the same way. It’s like the gun is the disease. [Now,] this disease is the disease. Somebody in that crowd is a carrier.”
In late March, the city had not yet released official data on the race of those dying from COVID-19. But Sekou had already begun receiving calls from sources in Manhattan’s hospitals.
She said they relayed an urgent request: A high proportion of black people were already succumbing to the virus and somebody trusted was needed to do outreach in the community.
Meanwhile, she kept seeing young people gathering in hallways and street corners with no protection.
After the city Health Department released preliminary data last week showing that black and Latino New Yorkers are dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white and Asian residents, Sekou knew her group had to take action.
Sekou was also getting calls about the deaths of her own friends and neighbors in Harlem, which has some of the hardest-hit zip codes in Manhattan.
So, weeks after Sekou shuttered her organization’s physical office, she called her street-outreach team — many of them formerly incarcerated — to see if anyone felt comfortable handing out masks and gloves. Quite a few volunteered.
The longtime community activist worried that unprotected youth, who may not get very sick from the coronavirus themselves, might spread it to their families.
“These kids, not thinking and not having consequential thinking, think nothing’s ever going to happen to them. But he’ll walk in that house and be carrying and kill his father. And that’s how I have to say it. It sounds ugly,” said Sekou.
A Number of Factors
Melody Goodman, associate dean for research at NYU School of Global Public Health, noted several reasons black and Hispanic communities could be more at risk.
“Essential” workers still on duty, such as grocery store workers and building staff, are more exposed than those who can stay at home.
“And that happens to be black and brown folks,” said Goodman.
They are more likely to have conditions like “asthma, diabetes, hypertension, even as youth. So that puts them at higher risk,” said Goodman, a professor of biostatistics.
So does living in multi-generational households, she added.
People living in impoverished communities are also more likely to experience more housing instability, observed David Kennedy, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Compounding all that, he said, is a deep distrust of government and of the medical community that makes official directives hard to swallow.
“What privileged white folks think about official information can be extremely different than what harmed populations think about that same information,” said Kennedy.
“That means that having credible messengers like outreach workers saying, ‘You need to take this seriously, you may be putting your loved ones and families at risk,’ could be life-saving,” he said.
A Scary Realization
Jania Perry, a 19-year-old East Harlem resident, said that many of her friends — herself included — saw the jokes, hoaxes and conspiracies floating around on social media.
She didn’t take the virus seriously. “Then my chest was hurting — I got so scared that I thought I had it,” she said.
Perry ended up healthy — a doctor said she’d only pulled a rib muscle — but soon after the disease hit close to home.
“My grand-uncle. He passed away from coronavirus,” she said. Then, her uncle’s friend died, and another family member tested positive.
“If any of us came in our house with a virus, it can be easily [spread] to my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and that’s not okay,” she said. “So I’m going to do everything that I can do to protect myself so that everyone around me is good.”
As of Monday, Sekou already counts six of her own acquaintances who have died of the disease. But getting masks and gloves on youth has been a challenge.
At his presser last Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio shared his own concerns about the challenge of getting young people to stay inside cramped New York City apartment buildings as the weather gets nicer.
“It’s not a surprise that all the adults in the lives of our young people have to remind them constantly to follow the rules,” said de Blasio.
‘I Got You’
Sekou is undeterred and using the creativity she’s honed as a violence interrupter to push her new message.
Late last week, THE CITY witnessed Sekou convincing one young man, Thomas Abraham, to wear a mask, gloves and white bandana in return for a moment of fame dancing on her Facebook Live.
“Show me those gloves,” she yelled over remixes of “Raw” by Big Daddy Kane and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” blasting out of a pair of speakers, as he danced, waving his hands over his mask.
“We got some known gang members that put on masks and gloves,” said Sekou, recalling a conversation with one of them.
“I told him, I said, ‘Baby, I need you … I need you to cover your face and wear gloves so that you become the person, the courageous one, the leader that people follow. Do what you’re doing to make this popular, so that other people that you know and love don’t get sick.’
“He said, ‘I got you, Ma.’”
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