For What It’s Worth: Perspective in the Time of Covid

Dr. Irwin Redlener.

By Dr. Irwin Redlener

I’m sure I’m not the only Upper West Sider who has been frustrated by being unable to find a particular product on the shelves of Best Buy, or my favorite brand of toothpaste that was always available at the pharmacy around the corner, prior to pandemic-generated supply-chain challenges. And I know most of us have at least occasionally expressed some level of annoyance because our hold time was “really long,” waiting for an airline agent to handle a long-standing reservation to visit relatives or a favorite vacation spot.

(And I’ll tell you, Karen and I were pretty damn uncomfortable bundled up under the electric heaters outdoors at French Roast.)

But enough whining. I’ve come to fall back on a bit of perspective about all of this, including our own work with homeless and indigent families in New York City. Since 1987, when Karen and I, along with former Upper West Sider, singer-songwriter Paul Simon, started the Children’s Health Fund, we have been deeply engaged in helping struggling New York children and families get access to quality healthcare, and connect with services that help them find affordable housing, food resources and other support that every family needs.

Most of the families living on the edge actually include at least one, often two working adults. Many have more than one low-paying job, trying to make ends meet. They live with struggles that are painful and often heartbreaking. A few sets of clothes for the kids. But when the washer and dryer in the shelter isn’t working, embarrassed children go to school in dirty clothes.

Vision often had not been screened sufficiently, or results followed up appropriately. We regularly saw as many as 30% of children in elementary school classrooms in Harlem — that is, on 124th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, just 14 blocks north of the UWS’s official boundary. (Children’s Health Fund did the follow-up, getting glasses for the kids who would not succeed in school if they couldn’t see the board or read their homework.)

Remote learning last year was a problem for many of the 700,000 public school children living at or near the poverty guidelines. Even if the City provided a laptop, parents had to be at work and there was often nobody to help with lessons, and no quiet place in the apartment to study. Internet access could be absent or spotty.

The lives of children living in the great swell of urban poverty in our great city is very different from what we may understand about the lives of most UWS children.

I try to remember many of the children and families we’ve worked with. And who comes to mind as I write these words is a 15-year-old boy I met in a homeless shelter some years ago. He and his family had been moved from facility to facility for at least a decade.

The thing I recall most about Raymond is that he was a really talented artist — with aspirations to become a professional graphic designer. He had tough going — and I lost track of him once his family moved to Camden, NJ.

What moved me to tears though was not the fact that he was homeless or that he had difficult-to-control asthma. Or that he never stayed in the same school for more than a single academic year. What really bothered me was that this talented young artist, a child of NYC, had never been to a single one of our city’s glorious art museums or galleries. Never.

So, yeah, I am regularly pissed off about the annoyances and troubles that have make our UWS lives frustrating, even depressing. But we’re trying to keep it all in perspective. That much I can tell you. We’re trying.

Dr. Redlener is founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and co-founder of Children’s Health Fund. And he’s an on air public health analyst for MSNBC. Follow him on Twitter: @IrwinRedlenerMD


COLUMNS | 10 comments | permalink
    1. Linda says:

      Could we please have an address for contributions to the CHF?

    2. LL says:

      I think this article makes a good point about the very real hardships of poverty. But this also struck me as kind of…condescending. Like. You can have all the money in the world and be in total hell.

    3. Sb says:

      The poor in NYC have to be some of the luckiest poor on earth—they have the riches of the cultural world spread like a banquet and there are many free nights and programs available—not even a lot of effort for that one just find out the free night and go—then there are the programs like prep for prep targeted to young people of color—so much available for young people and families with the desire and initiative

      • Sarah says:

        You’d trade places with one, right?

        • Sb says:

          I’m merely pointing out the programs and museum free hours and free library resources available to the poor of NYC which are not available in many other places like many rural counties for example

          • Sarah says:

            No, you’re implying that it doesn’t suck to be poor in NYC, which is…a downright embarrassing thing to say. You probably can’t even imagine what it’s like for a subway fare to represent a significant part of your budget, but it is for many.

            • Sb says:

              I’d like to respond to Sarah in a civil manner—I’m not embarrassed at all to point out all the free resources available to all in NYC and she should be proud of her city for that—also doesn’t know if I am poor or have been poor so don’t assume

    4. Stanley Sterenberg says:

      Dr. Redlener — Thank you for your framing of this issue through a longer lens — and thus reminding us to turn the camera (at least once in a while)… outward, and not directly at ourselves. This is so reminiscent of the appeal in JFK’s inaugural address in 1962 to “Ask not …” (those too young to know this quote — I invite you to look it up)