When the coronavirus first made waves in the U.S. back in March of this year, there were whispers that Black people, thanks to the melanin in their skin, were immune to COVID-19. It wasn’t long, however, until death toll statistics proved that rumor false.
A new study in the New York Times released this month found that Black and Latino people in the U.S. are three times more likely to get COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from the virus than whites.
“When the virus first came out in mid-March people started a rumor that it didn’t affect Black people,” recalls East Harlem District Leader Eddie Gibbs in an interview with Yahoo News. “We thought we were superheroes. … It turns out, it was the most false thing I have ever heard of. Black people are the most affected by it.”
Gibbs understands the impact of coronavirus all too well. As district leader in East Harlem for the Democratic Party, Gibbs oversees three heavily African American and Hispanic zip codes, two of which have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in all of Manhattan. But this hasn’t slowed him down from helping the most vulnerable population within his district, senior citizens.
“One of the main roles that I focused on since March was securing and distributing PPE, giving out masks and more importantly food,” Gibbs said. “We were on lockdown and people couldn’t get outside and stand on lines. … As a district leader we were responsible for doing the footwork here in the community.”
In his role, Gibbs is also tasked with understanding the concerns and issues of his constituents and being the liaison to more senior elected officials within the community to enact action and change. Having held the district leadership position for the past four years and serving as a community activist for the past 20 years, Gibbs has been building relationships within his East Harlem community for the better part of two decades. It’s these genuine connections that led him to discover that one of his own was in trouble.
During a visit to a senior center, one of the seniors voiced concern that she had not seen her neighbor in 3-4 days. “Joseph Jarvis is one of the vibrant seniors who would be in front of the building and say hello to everybody,” Gibbs said. “Greet strangers drinking coffee early in the morning. So it was odd he wasn’t out there.”
Gibbs went to Jarvis’ door to conduct a wellness check and there was no answer. He then brought in the NYPD to break down the seniors’ door. Jarvis was found dead in his bed. Gibbs did research to find out more about Jarvis and reach out to family and loved ones to notify them of Jarvis’ death, but it was to no avail. Jarvis had no next of kin and Gibbs had no access to paperwork.
“When a senior passes away and he or she has no next of kin it’s nearly impossible to get their information,” Gibbs said. “If you're not their proxy, the morgue, New York city, or management will give you pertinent information pertaining to their health or their financial status.”
Gibbs also had no idea whether Jarvis had life insurance. To date, Gibbs cannot access Jarvis’ apartment because it is now under the control of the NYPD. The only other way to get in the apartment is a court proceeding, but the courts are closed right now. Yet still, Gibbs believes that Jarvis should have the homegoing he deserves.
“We have to do something for this veteran,” he said. “He served our country. He served for us. We have to go out of our way to help him as well.”
By talking to neighbors Gibbs was able to find out that Jarvis was a 77-year-old veteran, born in 1943. Official discharge documents obtained by Yahoo News showed that Jarvis was a rifle sharpshooter in the Army’s 41st Infantry, fighting in the Vietnam War from November 1963 to November 1968. He served for a total of eight years before moving to East Harlem. During this time he was awarded a Vietnam Service Medal, a Vietnam Campaign Medal and a National Service Medal.
Jarvis’ East Harlem neighbors say he was a caring neighbor who greeted everyone on the floor before heading down on the elevator daily to sit outside his building. He drank his coffee each day and talked to people as they passed by.
Jarvis' cause of death is still not confirmed. While Gibbs has his own inclinations given his community’s COVID-19 case numbers, he has to wait at least two months for the morgue to give him their official findings. This didn’t stop Gibbs from raising funds to bury the veterain.\
“The clock is in fact ticking,” Gibbs said.
He does not want Jarvis to end up on potter’s field on Hart Island, where many of the unclaimed bodies have gone who have died during this coronavirus pandemic. Veterans Affairs will supply the plot and tombstone for a veteran, but they do not cover memorial service costs and caskets. Gibbs started a GoFundMe page to “give Joseph the memorial he deserves”.
The goal is to give Jarvis a worthy sendoff by July 15.
“I wish we could help everybody,” Gibbs said. “But this particular case landed in our lap and this man was a veteran. ... It’s the right thing to do. He sacrificed for us, let’s sacrifice for him.”
lives by one word: achievement. in anything and everything, achieve.