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The Coronavirus Takes A Toll On Queens Neighborhoods

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Almost 60,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19. That number can be hard to comprehend. It's about 20 times as many people as died on 9/11.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today we're going to look at different ways of understanding who these people are. Whether you feel surrounded by death or untouched by it right now depends on many things, like your location, race, age and job. We will consider each of those four factors in different parts of the show today.

SHAPIRO: First, geography - the city that was hardest hit by 9/11 is at the center of this tragedy, too. In New York, more than 17,000 people have died of this disease. No other city has more than a thousand. Bodies are stacked up in funeral homes. Refrigerated trucks serve as overflow morgues. And Queens has had more COVID cases than any other borough in New York, so we wanted to talk to one person living right in the middle of this.

JEAN RANDOLPH-CASTRO: My name is Jean Randolph-Castro. I am the president of the board of directors of Rochdale Village, which holds 28,000 people in this development.

SHAPIRO: Rochdale Village in Queens was the biggest cooperative housing complex in the world when it was built in the '60s. Board president Jean Randolph-Castro has lived there for 35 years.

Will you just describe what it's like these days? If you look out your window right now, what do you see?

RANDOLPH-CASTRO: Oh, my God, it's beautiful. You see beautiful scenery of the manicured lawn. You see beautiful trees and flowers blooming.

SHAPIRO: Is it strange to have that contrast of everything in bloom and flowers and springtime and know that people all around you are sick and dying?

RANDOLPH-CASTRO: Yes, that's the hardest part. It is so devastating. And normally, on any other times, you may have, like, one person die out of five months, maybe - mostly seniors and natural causes. But we had 15 people that passed away in this development between March 17 and April 21. So we only have two confirmed that died from the virus, but my thinking - possibly they all did. Now, in addition to the two confirmed, I had my friend - so we could add that - die yesterday. And my daughter's best friend's mom's died, so those are two more people that died with the virus.

SHAPIRO: That's a year's worth of death in the span of a month. She says her friend of more than 35 years lived in the building across the way. Castro didn't want us to name her out of respect for her privacy. The two could wave to each other from their terraces. They used to do Tai Chi together.

RANDOLPH-CASTRO: She's an expert in bowling. We'd always do trips together like going to Atlantic City, you know, 'cause she attend the senior center.

SHAPIRO: Castro was in her 70s like her friend was, and even though Castro is a social person, she has been isolating for more than a month - no visits from her kids, grandkids or great-grandson who lives in the complex. It's like death is stalking her neighborhood.

RANDOLPH-CASTRO: You just don't know. It's, like, the unknown. I just learned yesterday one of our pharmacists passed away. You know, we go to get our medicines from his variety drugstore, and Mr. Bill (ph) passed. So, I mean, he was OK a week before, two weeks before. So you really, really don't know. It's something that we never expected. It caught us off guard, especially me. I just - you know, I pray all the time. This is - the only thing right now that we reach out to is God because no one to me that I could understand could give me answers right now.

SHAPIRO: You know, we're all physically far apart from one another right now, but there are a lot of people all around the country who are going to hear your voice. Is there anything you would like to tell them or share with them, anything you would like them to know?

RANDOLPH-CASTRO: I would love to tell them tomorrow is not promised. Live for today, and always, always love each other. Love stands at all times. And whatever you do, tell someone you love them because you never know, and you never want to regret that.

SHAPIRO: Jean Randolph-Castro, president of the Rochdale Village Board in Queens, thank you so much for talking with us. I'm sorry for your loss.

RANDOLPH-CASTRO: Thank you. You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: And since we recorded that conversation on Skype last week, she says five more people in Rochdale Village have died. In other parts of the show today, we will talk about how race, age and occupation shape the American experience of COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAIRO SONG, "ALEWIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.