How East Austin Is Grappling With Covid-19

Thursday, April 23rd 2020

Covid-19 is magnifying racial and economic disparities in our community and across the country. Austin City Councilmember Nathasha Harper-Madison serves Austin’s Eastern Crescent, a part of town feeling the impact of this pandemic in profound ways. She talks with Judy Maggio about how the city is addressing the needs of people living in low income households who were already struggling before this crisis.

Judy Maggio: As we know, Black and Latinx East Austinites are more likely to live in poverty and more likely to suffer from some chronic health conditions that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus. What are your concerns right now? What are you hearing from your constituents?

Natasha Harper-Madison: Yeah, the concerns and the needs, they vary and there are many. In the short term, access. All things access. Access to testing. Access to healthcare. Access to data. Access to community outreach. And along those lines, my office will be partnering with various community organizations, faith-based institutions and the City of Austin's communications folks, to really put together a very robust, comprehensive outreach platform. We really need to specifically be speaking to people in African American and Latin communities.

JM: What are you hearing on the ground? What are some of your constituents reaching out and telling you and saying hey we need x, y and z?

NHM: I think it's pretty obvious to some degree that the people that have been deemed our essential workers are generally speaking, people that live in District 1 through 4. And so, the folks that have to keep going to work and recognize the risks that they're taking, they have concerns about themselves and their families. There's concerns about all of the disparities and shortages, there's food and healthcare and transit and transportation, basic hygiene items, diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, I mean you name it. The things that people need on a daily basis to survive.

There were people in our community who were already struggling to provide those needs for themselves and their families. And this crisis has certainly exacerbated those issues and is really shining a bright, bright light on inequities in the City of Austin.

JM: As you mentioned, the risks and sacrifices during this pandemic seem to be weighing heavily on working class, lower income families. Tell me what the city is doing to help these folks? I've heard about this $15 million emergency reserve money. Where is that money going? What are some ways the city is helping people struggling right now?

NHM: That funding will definitely be helpful. The way that it's laid out is half of that will go to organizations that the city has relationships with; social services organizations. And the other half will come in the form of immediate cash assistance. Both are important, but beyond that, we've already made the effort to stay evictions. We've already made the effort and we're able to accomplish in our last council meeting $46 million that went to Austin Energy to help subsidize, you know, electricity for folks. It's gonna be hot. It was already 90 degrees last week. It's gonna be a hot, hot summer. And with us doing what we have to do and staying safe and working from home, folks are going to need to make certain that they have access to their utilities. The clinics are reopening on the east side and they're rolling out four testing sites, which is hugely important.

JM: Natasha, if people are in need of some of these services you are talking about and want to get information, what is the best place for them to do that?

NHM: So my office and all the other council offices are all putting together a list of resources that are available, some of them more comprehensive than others. But the truth in the matter is you want one singular source where all the information lives in the same place. The City of Austin's Covid-19 page is your best bet. (Please link to page here)

JM: Are you hopeful these systemic inequities that have been very glaring right now will be addressed in new and different ways?

NHM: I do have that hope. And I think in a time like this where everything is so uncertain, the one thing we can all cling to unilaterally is hope. So I do have it. I do recognize some of these inequities and that there are folks who didn't recognize what the problem was because it doesn't directly affect them. There's a bright, shining light that's getting glared on inequities that are historic and I mean really rooted in structural racism.

If we were able to very quickly repair those systems, if we were very quickly able to get more people to focus on the digital inclusion component, deploy broadband for everybody and devices in the hands of every scholar in the city. If we can do that now, we can do that anytime. If we can open more clinics and testing sites and be more creative with how we deliver healthcare, we can do that anytime. If we can stave some of these oppressive systems that really make it so that people are always trapped in this cycle of poverty, we can do that anytime.

So recognizing that, I think, is definitely going to help. You know, folks keep saying that, you know, they can't wait for it to get back to normal. There will be no normal anymore! Recognizing that and what we come back to on the other side of this, it will be a whole new world with emerging technologies and innovation. There is definitely some hope on my part.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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