As the world reels from the impacts of COVID-19, it is clear that specific communities in the United States are suffering more than others.
Discussions about “getting back to normal” sidesteps the question of how we, as a country, should be turning toward bold and visionary initiatives to engage the intrinsic connection between structural racism, our healthcare system, immigration policy, and climate change.
A recent study titled, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Latinos in the U.S.” drills down on the reality of life for those impacted, both with stats and personal stories. Compiled by the Mijente Support Committee and the Labor Council for Latin America Advancement, the study draws a road map of how the elements of social and economic inequities – from a lack of accessible healthcare, poverty, low-paying jobs, food insecurity, and instability resulting from immigration status – have combined to put Latinos at the uppermost rates for Americans dying from COVID-19.
April national unemployment rate figures showed Latinos at 18.9%, 4.7% over whites. Latinos are 16% of the total American workforce. They also comprise the majority of workers in low paying jobs, many in the “essential workers sector. These encompass harvesting crops on farms, taking care of the elderly, keeping grocery store check-out lines moving, retail and service positions. Yet, only 38.2% of this labor force receives healthcare.
Before the pandemic, Latinos were already fighting disproportionate economic challenges. The 2017 U.S. census showed that 2.5% of Latino families were living below the poverty line – twice the national poverty rate.
Underlying and preexisting health issues is another reason Latinos have a higher rate of COVID-19 mortalities. These include diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and hypertension. The last two illnesses are directly impacted by air pollution.
Harvard University compiled a national study looking at the connection between long-term exposure to air pollution and fine particulate matter, and the “increased risk” from COVID-19. The findings showed a relationship between even tiny increases in ongoing exposure, resulting in a “large increase” in the virus death rate.
In my state of New York, Department of Health figures updated on May 11, reported fatalities by ethnicity as follows: Latinos were at the top with 14%, despite being 12% of the population. In all the boroughs of New York City, Latinos led fatalities at 34%, despite making up only 29% of the population.
Then there is the glaring reality of immigration detention facilities. Before COVID-19 hit, holding spaces were being called out for a shocking lack of hygienic resources, as basic as soap and toothbrushes.
In 2017, there were 10.5 million undocumented people in America. 9 million were Latino. Two-thirds of those people had lived in the US for over a decade – with no health coverage and no government assistance, despite paying taxes.
I reached out to Cecil Corbin-Mark, the Deputy Director of WE ACT, to ask him what he saw ahead. My top questions were:
- Would communities of color be left behind in getting COVID-19 healthcare, if the levels of infection impacting white people dropped off?
- If a vaccine is uniformly available to all people – should it be at no cost?
Corbin-Mark responded, “Yes. There’s no reason not to have the vaccine free for all people.” His primary concern was that people would “return to business as usual.” He said, “How do we build an America that’s ready for the next pandemic? Frontline communities have always known about the lack of access to healthcare and housing. We’ve tried to raise the alarm about these challenges. The response has not been acceptable.”
Reflecting on the communities he organizes in, Corbin-Mark emphasized, “Our inability to recognize ICE facilities or prisons as hot-spots, the needs of the homeless and unsheltered, the people who are working in meatpacking factories – we have to focus our attention on them. Otherwise, we are sentencing them to death.”
He added, “In a country as rich as ours, we have to figure this out. As a society, we also have to have compassion. If we don’t, we do so at our own risk.”
This is where the potential power of Latino voters comes in. In three decades, Latinos will make up 30% of the American population.
A Pew Research Center report projected “that the 2020 election will mark the first time that Hispanics will be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate, accounting for just over 13% of eligible voters.”
The Hill did an analysis in June 2019, pinpointing newly enrolled Latino voters, finding “that 90% of those registrations were concentrated in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin, many of which will be critical swing states in the 2020 presidential election.”
Vote like all our children’s lives depend on it. Because it does.