Coronavirus health disparities highlight race, class divides in NYC epicenter

Bronx residents, who are primarily black and Latino, are more likely to be uninsured, have underlying health issues and work on the frontlines. COVID-19 has magnified these longstanding issues.
10:22 | 05/21/20

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Transcript for Coronavirus health disparities highlight race, class divides in NYC epicenter
This is a special edition of "Nightline." Pandemic, a nation divided. Transit runs 24/7, seven days a week. Can't stay home. Buses don't drive themselves. First light has yet to break. But at this bus depot in the south bronx, Wayne lasarti has already been behind the wheel for hours, shouldering a heavier work load since the coronavirus. These extra buses running to compensate for the four hours subways aren't running. So I pick up a trip from 2:00 to 5:00. His bread and butter, shuttling workers across new York City at all hours, now a covid front line. We're all putting our lives out there. If you were going to tell me that we were going to have a pandemic in 2020 and you're going to be out there and you could very possibly die, would I have signed up for it? I don't think anybody would have signed up for that. But we did. And we're here, and we're working. We got to do what you need to do. Welcome to the bronx. This is a community full of richness and history. We are deliciously loud here. We are extremely festive. The northern most of five new York City boroughs, separated from Manhattan by bridges and tunnels. Home to Yankee stadium, the bronx zoo and nearly 1.5 million new yorkers, many essential workers. Before covid-19, the bronx was known as the forestborough. It's now the essential borough. Workers who didn't have a choice to shelter in place working for low wages. On and now this grim reality. The highest rate of covid-19 deaths. The epicenter of the epicenter. A historically disenfranchised Latino and black majority. Twice as likely to die from covid than anywhere else in the city. Hardly an accident that the bronx has become the epicenter. Exposing the stark divides between race and class, the haves and have-nots. Hey, baby girl. Can you dig? Sure, can you dig. Go inside. In the southeast bronx, community organizer, Tonya fields has cultivated an urban farm where she and her six children and neighbors grow everything from herbs to fruit trees. Here is an apple tree. Even raising chickens. Clockwise, counter clockwise. Little bit of -- Tonya's preparing to distribute fresh produce to her neighbors. Weeks after recovering from Thomas, ball, inside, please. I got I have, very sick for about three weeks. Unproductive cough. Fever of 101. Body aches and chills. Within days, the virus stormed through the three-bedroom apartment shared by her family. How hard is it to socially distance in an apartment with six children. Impossible. It is impossible. I was wearing a mask in my house, almost 24/7. I tried to stay out of common areas like the kitchen. But it's difficult. My eld oels daughter who is 17, college bound, she got the sickest of all my children. My 16-year-old who's chronically asthmatic was wheezing and having a lot of problems breathing. You refer to yourself as a cash-poor black woman. Mm-hm. Yet you're spending your money on these fruits and vegetables. Yes. Why. As someone who raised my children on welfare, I have been able to gain some things that some of my neighbors have not. I'm a college graduate and fought tooth and nail to raise two children and claw my way to graduate. So while I don't even make $30,000 a year, I am able to provide this to my community. Are you worried that people in your neighborhood are going to go hungry during covid? People in my neighborhood have already been going hungry. The south bronx is ground zero for racially concentrated poverty. Even before the pandemic, hunger was no stranger here. One in six residents experiencing food insecurity in 2018. One of those and one of these. Much of my job is to ensure that they have access to food. I've never seen just a more overwhelming sense of desperation in my district. A city divided is an adage that's long held true for Richie torres, city councilman. God bless you. We want to provide people with a warm meal, groceries, a and water. He, too, recently recovered from covid-19. Since then, face time with constituents has meant seeing a little less face. I can't recognize anyone with a mask. I know. Youngest ever elected to new York City council at 25 now 32 and running to represent the poorest congressional district in the country, vowing to improve public housing. I felt that public housing had become the forgotten city. I could advocate from a place of experience. I grew up hire hat at 2761. My grandmother moved here, one of the first Puerto ricans. My mother is 60, has hypertension. So you have to maintain distance from your own loved ones for their own protection. Her hypertension, one of the many invisible ties bonding poverty to poor health. This borough, home to waste treatment facilities and tucked between highways that for decades gave rise to unforgiving health consequences. Children here twice as likely to be hospitalized with asthma. You were diagnosed with asthma at the age of 8. Yes. When you live in conditions of mold and mildew and vermin, those are known triggers for asthma. I was repeatedly hospitalized as a child. Poverty takes a toll on the body. The difference in life expectancy between the south bronx and Manhattan is ten years. Poverty is poison. For two decades, Dr. Ramon has been seeing patients from immigrant communities. His team one of the few lifelines to predominantly spanish-speaking patients. Now partnering with the state to add 28 additional sites. From the beginning, we've been crying to get testing in our community, but we did it ourself. We put out the line. A lot of money, the doctors, to ourself, and we want to continue for our own people. The doctor says his patients are more likely to be uninsured than the national average and can no longer be ignored. Once you know what's going on for the people who are in the front line, like us, are you going to pay attention to us? That's different. That's negligent. Many in this community often the last to be helped have been the first to be called to work. Lasarti drives the same streets his father did. He drove for 23 years. I would ride the buses with him, just kind of people watch. And it was very interesting, you know, as a kid. But the onset of the outbreak transformed his outlook. We were very, very scared. There's no line of defense out you're on the bus with ten, 15, 20, 60 people. I felt like I was a sitting duck. Lasarti says many of his colleagues called out sick and soon he received word that one of his drivers from his very depot passed away from covid-19. Shocking. Shocking. You see people every day. And then all of a sudden somebody's not there. For a day, two days, a week goes by, and then we got word that he was sick. And he was out. And he ended up passing. Veteran driver, Leon Mcnight was 49 years old, a father of five who loved to talk about his children. He's one of more than 120 new York City transit workers who have lost their lives to the coronavirus. Protections for New York City bus drivers have improved. There were barriers put up. They did start providing us with masks. The buses that are coming in being sanitized every night. But fears of contracting the virus are never too far. Am I still nervous now? We all are. We have a lot of people that we move, and there's some people that come on with no mask. They're coughing, and it's only get being worse out there. More and more people are out riding these buses. And yet determined to do his part for the city that never I'm going to keep working until god forbid something happens.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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