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Angel Morales is trying to keep his fears in check.

For the head of a low-income household, it’s almost impossible.

“I try not to think about the coronavirus,” said Morales, 36, a married father of five and a sheet-metal worker in Kensington. “But everybody I know is worried.”

He and his wife, Emily Ramirez, 35, a day-care worker, can’t avoid infection by working from home. And if the schools close, he said, one of them may have to miss work to watch the kids.

“I don’t know what we’ll do," Morales said. "Right now, all I can tell my family is to wash their hands.”

As the coronavirus expands in the Philadelphia area, there is growing concern that low-income residents and people in poverty may suffer disproportionately — directly, by getting sick, and indirectly, through disruptions to their work lives.

“The poor are absolutely more susceptible than anyone,” said St. Joseph’s University sociologist Maria Kefalas, an expert on poverty who teaches the sociology of medicine. “One of the few constants in social science is that the poor get sick and the privileged are less vulnerable.”

Even at a time when middle- and upper-class citizens have been exposed to the disease by traveling, Kefalas said, most better-off Americans "can cancel the trip, buy Purell, and have Peapod [a grocery delivery service] bring the food.”

Money can buy some protection from disease. Those in poverty can’t afford it.

They must rely on public transportation, which can hasten exposure or spread infection, health and poverty experts say.

They often have jobs that don’t provide sick days, compelling them to work even if they contract the virus, thus putting themselves and others at risk. If they lose their jobs for virus-related reasons, they also forgo government benefits that are contingent on work.

Those in poverty sometimes have no choice but to gather in crowded public-assistance offices to apply for benefits such as food stamps (now SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Without doctors, many go to emergency rooms, increasing potential exposure.

They often live doubled and tripled up in unstable households where people frequently move in and out. “You can’t self-quarantine in North Philadelphia," Kefalas said.

Nazim Pierre, a volunteer from George School, places cans of tomato soup in food boxes for low-income seniors in the packing area of the Share Food Program,
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Nazim Pierre, a volunteer from George School, places cans of tomato soup in food boxes for low-income seniors in the packing area of the Share Food Program,

Those of meager means must show up at food pantries where clients frequently await their small allotments in packed areas in tiny church basements. “They can’t afford to stock up on supermarket food,” said Joan Maya Mazelis, a sociologist at Rutgers University-Camden.

Further, if schools close and the source of free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch is cut off, the costs and stress to parents and children increase. If shuttered schools conduct online classes, many low-income students will be left out because they have no computers.

“All these things create a cascade of events that increase hardship,” said Mariana Chilton, a professor of health management and policy, and the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health.

As a result, she said, the low-income population is “more susceptible to disease and suffering, which creates problems for the broader population.”

Thus, Chilton added, “the health of the wealthy is dependent on the health of the poor.”

Also making them more vulnerable to coronavirus are “underlying health problems that come from a lifetime of poverty and poor access to doctors,” said Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. Low-income Americans have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other chronic disorders.

Even if they’re not sick, they face losing their jobs as the fear of the virus changes the way we live. “Restaurant servers and bartenders and people who clean those places won’t be able to pay rent if people stop going out,” said Matrie Johnson, director of programs at Home of the Sparrow, a nonprofit in Exton, Chester County, that assists low-income women and children. “Oh, my gosh, how this is gonna impact.”

Pumping food

To meet the coronavirus’s steady advance, Share Food Program, a Hunting Park nonprofit that supplies food to pantries and lunch programs in the region, has tripled the amount of food it normally provides to those in need.

George Matysik, executive director of Share Food Program in Hunting Park, is tripling the amount of food the nonprofit sends to pantries in the area in anticipation of growing numbers of people being affected by the coronavirus.
Share Food Program
George Matysik, executive director of Share Food Program in Hunting Park, is tripling the amount of food the nonprofit sends to pantries in the area in anticipation of growing numbers of people being affected by the coronavirus.

“We’ve been working seven days a week around the clock to pump 35 million pounds of food into 500 pantries,” said George Matysik, Share’s executive director.

Share also provides school lunches for 305,000 students in the region, and Matysik is working on plans to have food available in designated spots should schools close and children miss out on lunch. He added that the potential loss of meals comes as the Trump administration prepared to cut SNAP benefits for some 700,000 in early April.

“It’s inhumane to cut benefits in a moment of crisis,” Matysik said.

Late Friday, the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., granted a motion brought by several states — including Pennsylvania and New Jersey — for a preliminary injunction to block the cuts. Also on Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives delivered a bill to the Senate that would help provide Americans with extra food and sick leave.

Stefanie Arck-Baynes, director of communications for Philabundance, the hunger relief agency that supplies food to 350 pantries in the region, said that Philabundance is making an appeal for monetary donations to keep low-income residents fed. She said she’s concerned that just as need spikes, some pantries may close, because many are run by retirees and elderly people who are at the highest risk of falling ill from the virus.

“Food distribution may become uncertain,” she said.

$40 for hand sanitizer

Many low-income people work as home health aides, which puts them in close proximity to elderly clients who might have the virus.

Lolita Owens, who works as an aide, takes two buses to get from her North Philadelphia home to Southwest Philadelphia, where she cares for a sickly 65-year-old who has not been diagnosed with coronavirus. On Wednesday, Owens, 49, found herself nervous.

“I don’t try to let nobody sit next to me,” she said. “God forbid somebody sneezes or coughs too much. I’m scared of somebody being next to me.”

Getting sick, she said, would be catastrophic. She makes $12.45 an hour working 60 to 70 hours in a six-day week, and there’s no paid sick time. If she couldn’t work, she said, “I wouldn’t be able to pay anything, not even transportation to get back on my feet.”

Owens has spent $40 on hand sanitizer, she said. Her worries escalated on Tuesday, when the city confirmed a case within Philadelphia.

“This is the first scare on a national level where I’m kind of afraid,” she said.

Even if she stays healthy, she could still be seriously affected by the illness, she said. Were her 14-year-old son’s school to close, Owens would face leaving him home alone.

“I’d be worried,” she said.

“Make-believe"

Philadelphia’s homeless congregated outside a social service center in Suburban Station operated by the nonprofit Project HOME, and rumors about coronavirus were spreading among them.

“It’s make-believe," said LaMar Harold, 41, describing a contrary view he’d heard about the illness.

Still, Harold, who’s been on the streets seven months, has been taking precautions, like washing his hands frequently in bathrooms at Wawas and 7-Elevens.

The Broke in Philly logo.

Another man, Joseph Thompson, 60, on the streets for three weeks, said he heard people succumb to the virus only if they hang out in large groups.

“I don’t feel particularly at risk,” Thompson said.

Project HOME staff had been talking to those gathered at the service center about how to avoid exposure to coronavirus, he said, and had emphasized washing hands.

Addressing concerns about people who are homeless, Liz Hersh, director of the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services, called it a “misconception that people experiencing homelessness are at greater risk” of contracting and spreading the coronavirus. “This is not true.”

Monica Medina McCurdy, vice president for health care services at Project HOME and a physician’s assistant, added that it’s still “worth keeping an eye on people living in shelters because of the close quarters.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.