The chasm between COVID-19 cases in Alameda and Oakland is a microcosm of the ethnic, racial and class health disparities raging across the country.
Two miles and a world away. That’s the distance between the city of Alameda and my home in Oakland.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic I walked to this island for the public library and wi-fi cafes. Today I walk there for exercise, cool salty air and necessities I can’t find where I live.
The inequalities grow starker with each walk across the bridge.
The chasm between the cities’ COVID-19 cases is a microcosm of the ethnic, racial and class health disparities raging across the country. One digit separates my zip code, 94601, from Alameda’s, 94501. But 94601 has the highest number of Alameda County’s surging cases, now the epicenter of the Bay Area’s COVID-19 spread. In 94601, 50% of residents are Latino, and many work essential jobs that increase exposure to the coronavirus.
Darker sections of the county’s COVID-19 map indicate greater numbers of cases, in areas with more people of color. My zip code has nearly 13 times as many cases per capita as 94501, 955 cases per 100,000 residents compared with Alameda’s 75 per 100,000.
The red band stretching across East Oakland reflects systemic racism that harms residents’ health with polluted air, food deserts, violence, inadequate health care, substandard housing and toxic stress. Such structural inequities cause higher rates of asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and lung disease, increasing the risk of Covid-19 complications and death.
In 94601 people queue for health care like concertgoers pre-coronavirus. Orange tape marks the sidewalk at 6-feet intervals outside a clinic that serves many Latino residents. By 7:30 a.m. one morning 19 people waited in line.
Near the Oakland Estuary a line of RVs where unhoused people live stretches a half-mile to a Home Depot where an encampment grew so large that someone once labeled it “American favela” on Google maps. The city moved some residents to another fenced lot. Progress? Others relocated elsewhere, such as two tents near the water’s edge across from expensive houses with private boat slips. I exchanged hellos with a man sunbathing and admired a pink wildflower inside a plastic bottle vase beside his home.
A shopping center stands just over the bridge. I take a shortcut through a torn chain-link fence, which reminds me I’m an interloper. The fence gets patched, peeled back and the cycle repeats. I’m forever grateful to the invisible helper that provides me entrée.
After the first weekend of protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I crossed the bridge. Someone had torn open the fence again, and I stepped into a parallel universe where things appeared largely untouched by the revolution in the streets. No plywood covered storefronts, save a pizza joint. Kids accompanied parents to the supermarket. They weren’t sweeping broken glass outside damaged businesses like a group of young Latinos I saw across the bridge.
It’s hard not to feel sad, angry and exhausted passing between these two worlds.
In Alameda, Walgreens remains well-stocked and orderly, unlike the location near home, which I avoid. Trader Joe’s workers spray your hands with sanitizer upon entry. The Cardenas supermarket near home had a recent COVID-19 outbreak with 12 workers infected. An Alameda supermarket cashier observed that my $65 order was “small” compared with the $300-$400 orders he’d checked all day. Many of my neighbors can’t afford to bulk shop.
In my public interactions with Alameda residents, they paint Oakland as a distant, dangerous place. We have our problems, but that’s not the place I know. I’ve never gotten as much street love from strangers as I have in “The Town.”
Back in Oakland, walking the streets lifted my spirits. A convenience store turned struggle into art by covering punched-out windows with plywood painted with flowers, adding to the area’s bright murals. A car caravan pulled into Fruitvale Plaza, where a multiracial crowd listened to a father speak about his son’s murder by police, not far from where BART police killed a 22-year-old unarmed black man named Oscar Grant.
I’m proud to live in this city with a long history of community organizing, from the Black Panthers to social and racial justice organizations like the East Oakland Collective. As Mayor Libby Schaaf said recently, “Protest and free speech are part of Oakland’s DNA.” Among the most inspiring demonstrations, two college students, Akil Riley and Xavier Brown, 19, rallied 15,000 peaceful protesters in a youth-led march. A day later some 8,000 people ended their protest with a dance party.
For many police violence and the pandemic’s worst pain remain confined to newsfeeds, as Mill Valley Mayor Sashi McEntee reminded us when she said that Black Lives Matter was “not of immediate local importance” in Marin County. Not our problem.
But silence and neglect are choices. They designate racial and ethnic minority citizens, who live “over there” in neighboring but unequal zip codes, as “throwaway people.”
We must continue crossing the bridge. Join me. I know a shortcut.
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, firstname.lastname@example.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters. Stacy has also written about closed community spaces and the homeless during the pandemic.