To address some of this confusion, the Health Department created “tailored webinars.” But, along with other online sources, they have turned out to be of little use to the many low-income people with no internet access. “We just don’t have the technology,” Shirlene Cooper, an AIDS activist living in Flatbush, Brooklyn, told me. “For me, a person living with H.I.V., no one told me what to do.”
In the view of Beverly Xaviera Watkins, a social epidemiologist at the University of California-Irvine, messaging in low-income communities of color hasn’t been inadequate; it has been “horrendous.” It has had little success overriding deeply held suspicions of a medical class that has a long history of exploiting Black Americans or disabling a broader mistrust of government. These strains of doubt are amplified in public housing, where decades of neglect and deceit have resulted in buildings tainted with lead paint and mold and a vanished faith among people who live there that their well-being is anyone’s priority.
Not long ago, Dr. Watkins began investigating the spread of the coronavirus in buildings of the New York City Housing Authority. With Karen Blondel, an environmental-justice advocate and longtime resident of the Red Hook Houses, she surveyed a representative sample of people living in three complexes in Brooklyn and found that a vast majority of respondents had not been tested even though more than a third knew someone who had died of Covid-19.
At one point, the city had workers knocking on doors to ask people if they wanted to be tested, but this, Ms. Blondel observed, served only to spread more fear. The people who showed up were strangers, and those on the other side of the door experienced a sense of invasion. They worried, too, about what might be done surreptitiously with their bodily submissions — what else would clinicians be looking for?
Dr. Watkins’s survey also included a question about a potential vaccine, another explosive subject. Nearly half in the group said they were not sure that they would take one if it were offered. A few people wondered if it might give you the disease. There was also an urban myth circulating that the vaccine would contain a tracker that allowed the government to check your movements.
“I thought it was insane at first, but then I kept hearing it,” Dr. Watkins told me. “The thing is, you could get control of the virus everywhere in the city, but if you can’t get it down in public housing, you’ve lost the war.”