Pandemic in the city

How African immigrants in New York City’s Manhattan borough coped with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Located on Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd between 133rd and 134th Streets, The Shrine Live Music Venue is owned and operated by a Burkinabe who named it after Fela Kuti's Shrine in Lagos. It is a place of social gathering for African immigrants. Image credit Boukary Sawadogo.

These days New York City’s streets see far fewer African immigrants than usual. No more are young West Africans speeding through traffic on their electric delivery bikes. Absent is the buzz of busy hairdressers and street vendors dotting 125th Street. No longer is there constant traffic in and out of African restaurants. And, the space of social gathering for young Burkinabe immigrants on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard between 134th and 133rd streets has become eerily quiet. At the peak of the crisis, the only thing to disturb the silence in this part of Harlem was the wailing sirens of ambulances.

African Uber and taxi drivers also became a rare sight in the streets, though, like many other immigrants and working-class New Yorkers trying to balance health and livelihoods, a few still got behind the wheel for in-demand doorstep grocery delivery services. Eventually, Uber drivers returned to the streets after rearranging the interior of their cars by partitioning them with see-through plastic to maintain physical barriers with backseat passengers. After all, how long can one endure hunger in confinement during Governor Cuomo’s “Pause” executive order?

The francophone West African immigrant enclave in Harlem began to form in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Senegalese, Malians, Nigeriens, and Guineans moved en masse to the neighborhood. Later, in the early 2000s, growing numbers of Burkinabe also came, drawn to the neighborhood’s association with blackness and its historical standing as the mecca of black culture and politics.

West African immigrants have transformed Harlem economically and culturally. Their contributions to the neighborhood are evident from the proliferation of live-music venues, restaurants, stores, places of worship aimed at their various communities. These activities are particularly noticeable around enclaves such as Little Senegal, on 116th Street between Lenox Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and what I refer to as Burkina Land on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard between 133rd and 134th streets. Contextualizing West African immigration to Harlem within the larger migratory patterns to the United States, the scholar Zain Abdullah underlines in his book Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem (2010):

While most West African immigrants to the United States have come from English-speaking nations with Christian leanings such as Nigeria and Ghana, the recent surge of African immigrants into Harlem originates in French-speaking countries. As a result of major changes in the US immigration laws of 1965, which allowed an unprecedented arrival of new immigrants from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

In his book Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City (2002), the anthropologist Paul Stoller demonstrated the Africanization of New York through the economic, spatial, and communal presence of African street vendors. These migrants, mostly from francophone West African countries, have successfully navigated the politics of space to establish a presence in Harlem (Malcolm Shabazz Market and Little Senegal) and lower Manhattan (stalls on sidewalks). This is particularly significant for migrants who often have both limited English language command and access to the city’s decision-making circles. The stories of African immigrants in Harlem and across the city are emblematic of a certain resilience and adaptability.

Little Senegal. Image credit Boukary Sawadogo.

However, this resilience has been stretched to it’s outer limits by the pandemic’s arrival in New York. With hourly shifts in restaurants, cafes, hotels, transportation companies, retail business, and restaurants suddenly vanished, many African immigrants had no income or savings to weather the difficult times.

This helps explain the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color across the nation. In New York City, for instance, black and Latinx New Yorkers were twice as likely to be hospitalized as whites, and also more likely to die, with African Americans accounting for almost 30 percent of deaths but only 24 percent of the city’s population.

Undocumented immigrants also bore a disproportionate share of the burden, but their stories remained mostly under the radar of news headlines, and absent from data released by local and state governments. According to the New York Times, it is estimated that there are thousands of undocumented African immigrants in New York. Undocumented immigrants in the US are ineligible for emergency assistance, such as unemployment benefits or the economic impact payments of up to $1200 per individual paid out by the federal government. Yet, these immigrants—mostly low-paid essential workers—form a key part of the labor force that kept New York City running under the stay-at-home order. Many African immigrants in particular work in “essential” occupations such as delivery workers, grocery store clerks, cab drivers, cleaners, homecare aides, health care workers, and more, without protection mechanisms such as health insurance.

The 90-day moratorium on residential and commercial eviction proceedings declared by Governor Andrew Cuomo in March—extended for an additional 60 days until August 20th—gave some reprieve regarding housing matters. But this mitigating measure was not helpful for the many African immigrants tripling or quadrupling up in apartments with leases in someone else’s name—often a someone who kept demanding timely rent payments. Thousands of African immigrants in New York found themselves in this situation, and needless to say, social distancing is particularly difficult to maintain in overcrowded apartments.

African Square located on Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd and 125th Street. Image credit Boukary Sawadogo.

The African immigrant communities of New York have been able to remain resilient in the crisis by calling on members to rise up to the challenge that COVID-19 presents. Donations and outreach initiatives by voluntary associations and members of the African community have helped address food insecurity and provide necessary information in order to access healthcare. For instance, the Association of Burkinabe in New York (ABNY) is actively involved in anti-COVID-19 efforts in Burkinabe immigrant communities in the boroughs of Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. The association has set up a COVID-19 Task Force whose two-pronged role is to connect infected Burkinabe with medical personnel in the community, and to collect donations for weekly distributions to community members who face food insecurity. Since March 29 to present, ABNY has collected $44,902 in monies and in-kind donations that went to 1,800 family beneficiaries. In total, more than 5,000 immigrants have received assistance from ABNY. In addition to community organizations, individual members of the community are volunteering to distribute collected food and to regularly share information on COVID-related resources on social media platforms. However, the tens of thousands of African immigrant residents of upper Manhattan and the Bronx are in dire need of a safety net, beyond solidarity from their own community.

The African immigrant experience in New York City during the COVID-19 crisis should be understood in the larger context of how the crisis has exposed the fault lines in race, class, gender, and immigration status in American society. For Africans, the compounding effects of being an immigrant, whether documented or undocumented, and living in under-resourced neighborhoods, like upper Manhattan and the Bronx, have made them acutely vulnerable in the crisis, facing issues of food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, and housing instability. This pandemic has laid bare the need for profound socioeconomic changes, including access to information, a reimagined and inclusive public health system, and shared accountability and responsibility to collective well-being beyond any considerations of immigration status. Will we rise to the challenge?

Further Reading