'There are two pandemics': Chicago's gun violence persists amid lockdown

Eric Lutz in Chicago
<span>Photograph: Nam Y Huh/AP</span>
Photograph: Nam Y Huh/AP

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Chicago into lockdown, closing restaurants, bars, stores and even its celebrated lakefront. But the crisis hasn’t slowed the city’s devastating gun violence epidemic.

While crime overall has ticked down slightly amid shelter-in-place orders from local leaders, shootings and murders have remained fairly consistent so far, with the city registering more shootings in March this year than the previous year.

Related: Chicago's deadly summer: guns, gangs and the legacy of racial inequality

During the first weekend of April, two were killed and 18 were wounded, mostly on the city’s predominantly black and brown South and West Sides. On Tuesday, as unseasonably warm temperatures in Chicago rose into the 80sF (27C), the city endured its most violent day of 2020, with at least 21 shot – including a five-year-old girl – and six killed.

“Violence of any kind is never acceptable,” the mayor, Lori Lightfoot, said at a news conference this week decrying the violence. “But the fact that this is especially urgent right now as our ability to treat all Chicagoans is being stretched to the breaking point, we cannot allow this to happen and we will not allow this to happen.”

The ongoing violence in America’s third-largest city puts additional strain to a healthcare system struggling to combat the novel coronavirus – and could be exacerbated by the pandemic that has dramatically altered life in the city for the foreseeable future.

default

“Anger, frustration and depression doesn’t get put on hold while there’s a pandemic going on,” said Pastor Michael Pfleger of St Sabina, on the city’s South Side. “It’s still there, and it’s heightened right now. All it does is heighten the reality of the neglect.”

The coronavirus has brought to the fore the existing racial disparities in Chicago, with black residents representing a majority of Covid-19 deaths in the city and Cook county. Experts fear that the health and economic impacts of the pandemic may worsen the structural conditions that feed the violence issues, compounding the city’s already pronounced race and class inequalities.

“I think there’s going to be a lasting impact on this, even beyond the direct public health impact of Covid,” said Max Kapustin, senior researcher at the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

The continued violence comes as hospitals in Chicago, like New York and other communities across the US that have been hit hard so far by the outbreak, grapple with a pandemic that has stretched their limited resources.

Illinois’s governor, JB Pritzker, has warned that intensive care unit beds are filling up quickly and that the state needs more ventilators, as the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases here rises above 15,000 and its death toll nears 500.

“Every one of those beds, every one of those ER beds, taken up by a gunshot victim could be somebody’s grandmother, somebody with pre-existing conditions, somebody that is in danger of losing their lives because of the pandemic,” Charlie Beck, the city’s interim police chief, said in a news conference with Lightfoot.

“There are two pandemics in Chicago,” Beck said, “and only one is virus-induced.”

Anger, frustration and depression doesn’t get put on hold while there’s a pandemic going on

Pastor Michael Pfleger

At Mount Sinai hospital in Douglas Park on Chicago’s West Side, one of the busiest trauma centers in the country, the dueling crises of Covid-19 and gun violence have stretched staff and resources.

Even for longtime medical professionals at the facility on the frontline of the city’s violence epidemic, the coronavirus pandemic has been shocking.

“I’m amazed by it,” said Michele Mazurek, chief nurse officer and vice-president of patient care services. “We’re used to trauma patients here. Covid is almost like its own trauma itself.”

The continued gun violence has forced the hospital to put into place its surge plan, with educators, nurse practitioners and Mazurek herself providing patient care at the hospital.

“The influx sometimes is incredible,” Mazurek said. “It is stressing on our emergency room.”

Mount Sinai officials said it has been able to maintain a high level of care despite the obstacles, thanks to the efforts of staff. But, they said, the situation has already taken a toll on healthcare workers.

“I’ve been a nurse since 1993,” Mazurek said. “This has been the hardest experience I’ve ever lived through.”

As of Wednesday, Chicago had seen a reported 550 shootings in 2020 – up 64 from last year. That number will probably continue to grow, particularly as the weather warms into the summer months, when violence in the city tends to spike.

“Unfortunately, the epidemic of gun violence continues to plague us every day, every hour of the day,” Lightfoot said on Wednesday. “This level of violence is never acceptable. Never, ever.”