While cities across the country begin to open up, the numbers of COVID-19 cases and statistics is staggering and difficult to truly fathom. It’s also staggering to note that industries that are considered “essential” that often employ the “working poor” have caused their workers to take the brunt of health risks to themselves and their families.
“There are currently over than 3.3 million people infected with COVID-19, and over 222,000 deaths worldwide. In the US we have nearly 1.1 million infections as of today and almost 63,000 deaths, accounting for one-third of all infections, and 28% of the deaths worldwide,” reported Dr. Tung Nguyen, professor in the UCSF Health Division of General Internal Medicine.
“There is still consistently over 20,000 new cases and 2,000 deaths in the US daily. Just to put that into perspective, that’s basically a 9/11 event every three days in terms of the number of deaths,” Dr. Nguyen said.
At the same time, there is concern from those who work with ethnic groups that communities of color are not being properly tested or counted in the overall numbers of COVID-19 cases even though they often work in jobs where they are at high risk of exposure. Those who must continue to work on the frontlines also risk exposing their families.
“When we look at these COVID case rates, I am of the opinion that they have way underestimated the actual rates because a lot of communities of color simply can’t access the system to get the testing to enter the rates,” said Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA.
“The City of Los Angeles has said now that everyone can get a test, but we are 6 weeks into this pandemic, and we really have very, very insufficient data, and the burden falls most heavily on communities of color,” Dr. Hayes-Bautista said.
Workers Not Protected
Another concern — the many people of color who work in industries that aren’t being shut down and are considered “essential businesses.” But the workers aren’t protected communities, causing many workers from the poorest communities to suffer disproportionately.
“Food processing plants, which we know often employ racial and ethnic minorities, are the new infection hot spots,” Dr. Nguyen pointed out.
“There are outbreaks in 80 plants in 26 states, 4,400 infections or more and 18 deaths. Over 25% of the plants have shut down, and in response, President Trump has issued an executive order to force them to stay open, but it’s not clear that any additional safety measures will be mandated or supported by the government to protect the workers,” he said.
The same concern for those who can’t socially distance while at work was echoed by Dr. Hayes-Bautista.
“As we look at the essential businesses that remain open so that the rest of the population can shelter in place, starting with the farmworkers that actually plant the food and harvest it — often without protective measures, in fact often without even documentation status at all — thus, as they are feeding the state, are also subject to immediate deportation” Dr. Hayes-Bautista said.
“The truck drivers who bring in products into the city, the shelf-stockers in the grocery store, the checkout clerks for Pete’s sake,” he continued. “The automobile mechanics, bus drivers, the attendants in the nursing homes, tend to be people of color, particularly in some of these professions tend to be Latino.”
“Latinos are still twice as likely not to have health insurance. There is a huge Latino physician shortage, even language physician shortage, so the groups that are most exposed because of the nature of the jobs they’re doing have the least access to care,” he said.
Putting “Breadwinners” at Risk
Melva Thompson-Robinson, director of the Center for Health Disparities Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noted some of the underlying conditions and high rates of hypertension, lupus, diabetes, cancer sickle cell, that put African-Americans at risk.
“African-Americans don’t necessarily get cancer at a higher rate, but we die from cancer at a higher rate because we don’t go to the physician, so we don’t get things checked out until it’s too late,” Thompson-Robinson said. “And so in some cases that’s some of what we’re seeing now with COVID-19. People aren’t going to the doctors when they should be, as a result when they finally are getting into the doctor they have a high rate of poor health outcomes because they waited too long to get in.”
Another major concern is the impact to the whole family when the primary breadwinner must take health risks in order to put food on the table. This is especially true for the children of immigrants who work at jobs where there isn’t a safety net.
“It’s clear from the data that the children whose families are being hit hardest by this crisis are the same children that our systems of education, health, and social services have long failed to support. We can and must do better. It’s government support that can truly help struggling parents, not only in California but across the country,” said Mayra Alvarez, president of the Children’s Partnership.
“As a result of COVID-19, there are millions of Americans that are experiencing threats to their health, their economic security, and for immigrants who have been excluded from federal relief efforts, the economic hardship and health risks are particularly paramount. But this is especially true for the children of these families.”
Toll on Children Not Attending School
Schools play a critical role in the lives of children and families, Alvarez said, providing enrichment activities, education, and physical activity. “But schools also offer social cohesion and safety, school meals; breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and they’re a key source of child care,” Alvarez said.
While many schools have transitioned to at home online learning, there are still many students who aren’t engaging in school instruction and may not be properly set up at home to receive instruction remotely so many students would fall behind. Even with “grab-and-go lunches” provided at some schools, many already low income families with parents whose jobs have been shut down face food insecurity.
“More than half of California’s parents of young children feel uneasy about personal finances, and more than a third are not confident about being able to pay for their family’s basic needs like food, housing, and healthcare,” Alvarez said.
For many California families, the coronavirus has been incredibly disruptive and put parents, and their kids’ well-being at risk, Alvarez said. She said 57% of Black, 76% of Latinx, and 72% of overall families are worried about their situations.
“We know time and time again that this crisis is significantly changing childcare arrangements and the parenting supports that they need. As surveys have indicated our response to this pandemic must ensure that children, but especially children of color, children from lower income families, and dual language, learners are at the forefront of our priorities. And that keeping those kids safe, healthy, fed, and housed, will help ensure their overall success.”