By Vishnu Bisram
THE greater Richmond Hill area of Queens County, New York, is now the epicentre of COVID in New York and America. The area has seen a spike in COVID cases not experienced since the outbreak last February. The area is home to tens of thousands of Indo-Guyanese Americans, hundreds of thousands of whom are settled all over the city. Tens of thousands of Indo-Trinis and Panjabis (from India) are also settled in the Greater Richmond Hill area. The area has one of the highest rates of COVID in America – over 16 per cent over the last couple of weeks based on testing monitored by the city and state governments. Several other areas of Queens and parts of Brooklyn, not the greater Flatbush area where most Afro-Guyanese Americans are settled, are also seeing a COVID rate close to 16 per cent. Besides Richmond Hill, Guyanese are also concentrated in other parts of Queens, some areas also with a high incidence of COVID, including Jamaica. The incidence rate of Guyanese is not known. But long lines are observed at testing sites in communities where Guyanese reside. Testing sites have been over-stressed with people eager to find out if they have been infected. Many are now conscious about testing and taking protective measures against infection. Large gatherings are discouraged.
New York City and New York State governments have romped up testing and contact-tracing to stop the spread of the dreaded disease that has taken the lives of tens of thousands of New Yorkers. Thousands of Guyanese have been infected and hundreds have died from it. In recent weeks, several ad hoc mobile testing sites have been opened in the Richmond Hill area including mandirs, masjids, churches, and Gurudwaras and even on street corners. All testing in New York is free, unless one wishes to engage in a private medical clinic that charges between $150 and $250 per test. Free public testing is also fast and efficient, producing results faster (within 72 hours) than private clinics (a week). Immigration status is not a bar to free testing and there are no limits to the number of tests a person can undertake. The government encourages the public to take regular, multiple testing for COVID. All testing results (private and public) must be reported to the government for monitoring – not the names of individuals, but the number of tests undertaken and infection.
Many Guyanese have lost loved ones in New York and around the country. Many Guyanese businesses have also been closed as a result of the pandemic. Thousands have also lost their jobs. Hospital and urgent-care clinics were overstressed with patients months ago; healthcare workers had lacked proper and enough masks and PPE. There has been much improvement since then.
In Richmond Hill, some people are not following guidelines at some religious places, perhaps contributing to an increase in COVID. The public is masked up in most communities including mandirs, masjids, churches, and gurudwaras. But large families within homes and some dwellings have multiple homes, facilitating spreading of the disease. Tightly knit Indian family life makes for easy contamination and infection. That is why people are encouraged to take protective measures such as safe distancing and masking. Schools have been open in the city and parents are urged to take measures to protect kids and themselves in public engagement. But it is not known if schools opening have been a factor in the increase of cases. Several educators and students have been infected. Holiday gatherings may be blame for the spike in cases.
Guyanese community leaders have expressed concern over the rising rate of COVID-19 in their communities. They are encouraging testing among the residents of Richmond Hill and in other neighbourhoods, where Guyanese tend to cluster. Community advocate Vishnu Mahadeo, for example, has been lobbying government officials to increase mobile testing sites in Greater Richmond Hill and other parts of the city where Guyanese are settled. He has also been securing materials (such as masks, shields, sanitizers, PPE, literature on COVID, etc.) to combat the disease. His organisation, Richmond Hill Economic Development, as well as his Senior Citizens Centre, working in tandem with politicians and other community groups, distributed free materials to the public over the last several weekends. His organisations also gave out food hampers over the last several months. Other organisations, including Pandit Ramlall’s Arya Samaj gave out hampers at various times.Mahadeo has been encouraging Guyanese to get tested. He said he recently took a senior to the hospital. “The person tested positive, and that’s the last I see of him.” He added: “Many people took it for granted that their family members were not impacted or infected and now we are beginning to find it out there are consequences. Mahadeo feels the city is not providing enough resources to combat COVID, and there has not been enough testing, or doing enough outreaches in Richmond Hill.
Mahadeo feels encouraged that Guyanese are afraid of being infected with the deadly virus and are coming forward for testing. Mahadeo will be distributing masks again on evenings of weekdays and this coming weekend.