My neighborhood of East Boston has the highest COVID-19 infection rate in Boston. It was 7.9 percent for the week of August 4 to 10. This is almost five times the state average for the same time period. It’s over 50 percent higher than that of the second-highest neighborhood. Many of our surrounding communities — Chelsea, Revere, Everett, Lynn — are designated as high-risk areas. So why are our infection rates so much higher than the rest of the city?
There might be some who assume residents are to blame for not following COVID safety guidelines closely enough. That assumption would be wrong. Our community isn’t worse at wearing masks or social distancing, or taking fewer public health precautions than any other. That’s not why our rates are higher than the suburbs.
Our coronavirus infection rates are higher because our communities are systemically more vulnerable to the spread of this disease. This was true at the beginning of the shutdown, and has become more so as Massachusetts has progressed through the phases of reopening. Many working-class East Boston residents don’t have the privilege of working from home. Their jobs, largely in maintenance and service industries, such as construction and hospitality, require them to go out to work and regularly interact with coworkers or members of the public. While the shutdown meant some (but not all) of these service workers were staying home, the state’s reopening means that even more are back to work out in public now. As a result, East Boston residents and surrounding communities have an increased risk of COVID exposure and infection.
Housing, expensive and hard to find, is also a factor. Many East Boston workers live in multigenerational apartments or share rentals with multiple roommates. People share bedrooms. When everyone’s living together in a small space, there aren’t many opportunities for social distancing. This means that when a worker gets sick, they have nowhere to quarantine, putting the rest of their household at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Research indicates that this kind of “family spread” is one of the top ways the coronavirus is spreading in East Boston.
Residents in high-risk communities like East Boston are more prone to COVID-19 due to preexisting health conditions that are the result of longstanding environmental burdens. My community is a Massachusetts-designated Environmental Justice population with a history of air pollution. East Boston residents have long suffered from elevated rates of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma and COPD, a legacy of living next to an international airport and a major highway. COVID can cause respiratory illness, so it’s no surprise that our residents are at an increased risk.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Maura Healey released a report on the role of environmental pollution in higher rates of COVID infection in low-income communities of color. It’s no coincidence that these communities remain the hardest hit now.
East Boston and other residents of communities with high COVID-19 infection rates don’t deserve blame. We don’t need pity. What my community and others deserve is action. So what needs to be done?
First, we need increased resources and assistance from the state. Governor Charlie Baker recently set the stage by creating designations for high-risk communities, and pledging additional aid. This aid should include increased testing and tracing capacity, priority for federal funding, more PPE and disinfectant resources, increased and improved public health messaging and communications in multiple languages, and improved enforcement measures. It is also critical that the state expand access to isolation sites in at-risk communities for workers who cannot quarantine at home without putting their families at risk.
Finally, we need Emergency Paid Sick Leave. The sick leave system was not designed for a pandemic. Workers should not have to choose between their health and economic security. Many are forced to continue working even if exposed to the coronavirus because they need to pay the bills. Sick leave is a form of aid that’s available to all workers who pay into the system, including undocumented workers. The state has an obligation to help our most vulnerable residents who have been systemically more exposed to COVID-19 infection.
Massachusetts is only as safe as our most at-risk communities. If we want to stop the spread, we need to ensure equity in the fight against COVID-19 and help communities that have been hardest hit.
Adrian C. Madaro is the state representative for the First Suffolk District and vice chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation.