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Sounds of Social Justice in the Era of COVID-19
By Kira O’Brien, LMSW, and Elizabeth Cauchois, MSW

On the heels of a windfall of literature emerging on the importance of social connection and contact to promote wellness, we are suddenly more isolated than ever. For many New Yorkers, the farthest distance they have spanned in the past few months has been from the living room to the bathroom, and in a Brooklyn apartment that’s not saying a lot.

While we are used to the cacophony of sound we’re normally greeted by every time we leave the house, we don’t often think about what that sound means. Specifically, that space between the ambient backdrop of living in a major metro area, and the very dangerous and often overlooked issue of noise pollution—a biological stressor that can impact your mental and physical health. Projects such as Sounds of New York have been working to track noise pollution across the city, and a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives shows that in the research, areas that have a higher rate of nonwhite, lower socio-economic status suffer the most from the implications of noise pollution.

Then COVID-19 hit, and it’s as though someone turned down the dial on the volume of the city. We were shocked by the eerie stillness of it. As our ears became more accustomed to the quiet, we became more aware of how the new soundscape of New York is booming with injustice.

In a recent report from the World Health Organization, researchers found that residents of areas with higher levels of noise pollution (e.g., that constant backdrop of ambulances or sirens) lost more than 1 million healthy years of life in Western Europe. This is due to noise pollution’s correlation with health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and other stress-related outcomes. This does not even take into account the experiences of individuals who have PTSD or other disorders that cause them to feel hypervigilant; the cortisol running through their veins is only heightened by the unannounced and unwelcomed blaring pitch coming through their windows.

Studies have shown that people may not pay attention to sounds when they expect them (even subconsciously), such as horns honking in the midst of a traffic jam, but that same sound when it’s unexpected, e.g., when a person is asleep, will trigger a stress response in the brain’s hypothalamus. As COVID-19 continued to ravage Brooklyn over the course of April, a siren was not only the highest-decibel sound most people were hearing while awake or asleep, it was the only sound they were hearing. Samer Kalaf notes in his article “Alone in the City of Sirens” that the purpose of a siren is to warn people to make way for the helpers and help the ambulance traverse the city as quickly as possible. Yet with almost everyone at home attempting to “flatten the curve,” it is now potentially the only sound a resident may hear. Kalaf says that “there’s hardly anyone on the streets now, so it all sounds less like a warning and more like a dirge.” In an article published by the New York Post, the dearth of additional sounds is also noted, and quickly linked to the level of stress and anxiety a person is feeling. A resident says that “It’s so much louder than usual because there’s no other noise. I’m so much more anxious now; they [ambulances] are supposed to get your attention among distractions. Now, the distractions are uncomfortably absent.”

Certain sounds will always elicit a stress response. An ambulance blaring will always send more cortisol flooding through your brain than the tinkle of a Mr. Softee truck, (unless you’re 7). This soundtrack of ambulances and sirens, it should be noted, are particularly omnipresent in areas where there are more cases of COVID-19 and higher levels of policing in occurrence (which in the first month led to more than 120 arrests due to violations of social distancing regulations; 98% of those arrests were of people of color). These sounds are much louder in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, as they are the ones being most impacted by the virus.

Two neighborhoods surrounding Prospect Park, Park Slope, and Crown Heights, have two very different experiences in most things, but particularly during the era of COVID-19. In Park Slope, where median income is around $141,000, the sound of ambulances is few and far between, while the 7 PM claps for health care and essential workers become more raucous by the day as folks add pots, pans, whistles, and cheers from the safety of their apartments. In Crown Heights, where the median income hovers around $50,000, there is no 7 PM clap for health care workers. While those across the park make sure to come back from their socially distanced walks in time to join the melee, the passage of 7 PM is marked just two miles away by the sounds residents of Crown Heights know well—the sounds of birds chirping, neighbors talking, and trucks blaring by, with the less frequently running Long Island Rail Road on Atlantic Avenue causing the houses closest to Atlantic to shake from the impact of the aboveground train. At night, the sounds of ambulances heading to nearby Interfaith Medical Center color the dreams of residents as the sun sets on another day in quarantine. The disparity in infection rates between the two neighborhoods as the Department of Health begins to publish data for Kings County is stark. Park Slope has had 587 infections, with 40 deaths total. Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvestant have had 1,709 infections, with 207 deaths total.

The articles coming out seemingly daily regarding how the virus has negatively impacted communities of color often try, with varying success, to acknowledge that the virus has laid bare what many have already known to be true—that something as intense as a global pandemic only exacerbates the inequality that already exists in America and within the health care system. In Park Slope, where almost one-half of the residents have a master’s degree, it is easier to work from home, social distance, and follow guidelines laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York State. The claps out the window every night are an attempt to show solidarity with and appreciation for those who are not so lucky as to be working and studying virtually from the comfort of their living room. The dearth of claps in Crown Heights is not reflective of a lack of appreciation for these modern-day heroes, but in fact a telling indicator that many of the residents are those “heroes” themselves. All over Kings County, the neighborhoods with more “essential workers” have higher infection rates. These neighborhoods are filled with individuals who drive cars, run bodegas, cook the food that is ordered on Seamless, and clean the hospitals as they fill to capacity. The need to continue to work out in the world where COVID lurks nearby means that come 7 PM, the only sound a resident may hear is the sigh of another day done.

As with most approaches in social work, the first step is listening. We need to take this as an opportunity to listen to the sounds of our neighborhoods and cities, rather than turn away. Use the opportunity to engage in advocacy work on targeted issues, such as opening up hotels to the homeless, supporting union workers at companies such as Instacart and Amazon, and lending your voice to stopping eviction proceedings for individuals who have been laid off. If you’re staying inside, think about offering your services through a city agency or local mutual aid network. Write letters to your elected officials; open their ears to the constant screeching of social injustice. Push yourself beyond the claps in appreciation for health care heroes—how might we push for systemic change within the health care system itself? How can we engage in conversation with our neighbors about these issues, as we put our heads out of the window and into the air for that brief moment at 7 PM? How can we critically examine how the “unsung” heroes of COVID-19 will go back to being the silent cogs that keep society functioning post pandemic? What can change, and what must change?

As social workers, we must be aware and use all of our senses in the fight for social justice—listen to the sounds, speak the words, and write the letters. This is an opportunity for us to each reflect on our own positionality and privileges in this crisis. When we go back to “normal,” what might a more socially just normal look like? Or even, what might it sound like?

— Kira O’Brien, LMSW, is a doctoral candidate and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University School of Social Work. She received her Master’s in Social Work with a dual focus in clinical practice and client-centered management/administration from Fordham University. Her background has been in refugee resettlement, where her focus was on supporting recently arrived youth and families in their transition to life in New York City. She has recently transitioned to Princeton University's Pace Center for Civic Engagement, where her focus is on immersive and experiential learning opportunities.

— Elizabeth Cauchois, MSW, is a recent graduate of Fordham University, where she focused on community-based practice and leadership. Since 2015 she has worked at the International Rescue Committee, supporting refugee and immigrant youth as an operations associate at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy and coordinator for the Leaders-in-Training Program, which supported recently arrived high school students with their transition to college. She spent the past year working at a New York City Community School in partnership with Make the Road New York, focusing on utilizing direct action and community organizing initiatives as tools of empowerment for worker and immigrant communities across New York City.