Latino, immigrant workers, hit hardest by COVID-19, see little aid from government, leaders say

By: - May 18, 2020 12:02 am

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver, flanked by Gov. Ralph Northam, left, and Secretary of Health Dr, Daniel Carey, right, at a news conference on Capitol Square in last year. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With Latino Virginians among those with the highest infection rates of the new coronavirus and afflicted by the severe disease it causes – COVID-19 – Latino leaders are asking why government outreach and aid to their sizable community has been negligible.

Despite assurances of aggressive assistance by Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia Department of Health, little has materialized, the leaders said. Spanish-language outreach, coronavirus testing, accommodations for those who need to be quarantined and aid covering costs of medical treatment is sorely lacking, they said.

“I am very disappointed in how this is being handled,” said Luis Aguilar, the Virginia director of CASA, a nonprofit that advocates for Latinos and low-wage workers nationally and in several Virginia localities.

“They’re pretending as if this pandemic affects all of us equally and that everyone has equal access. They do not. It’s absolutely clear that the governor does not understand what inequality means,” Aguilar said.

Statewide, Hispanic and Latino Virginians account for 29 percent of the confirmed coronavirus cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations for which racial and ethnic information is known, according to VDH data as of Friday. Yet Hispanics and Latinos accounted for slightly less than 10 percent of Virginia’s population of 8.5 million, according to U.S. Census figures from July 2018.

The disparity is more pronounced in areas with heavy immigrant populations.

In the Fairfax Health District, for instance, Hispanic or Latino patients accounted for 46 percent of its 7,245 confirmed coronavirus cases and 41 percent of its 1,050 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Friday, even though the group accounts for only about 16 percent of Fairfax County’s population. The health district for the adjacent city of Alexandria reported almost identical numbers.

Nearly three of every five hospitalized COVID-19 patients was Latino in the Prince William Health District, which encompasses the three jurisdictions with Virginia’s heaviest Latino percentages: Manassas Park (40 percent); Manassas city (38 percent); and Prince William County (24 percent).

It also holds true for rural areas with many Latino immigrant workers for industries such as poultry processing and agricultural labor. In the Central Shenandoah Health District, home to numerous poultry plants along the Interstate 81 corridor, 42 percent of its 1,163 confirmed cases and one third of its hospitalizations were Hispanic or Latino. And in the Eastern Shore Health District, also home to large poultry facilities, Latinos accounted for 16 percent of the cases and 21 percent of the 14 deaths, although they comprise just 9 percent of the population.

President Donald Trump ordered poultry and meat-packing plants to remain open during the pandemic under the Defense Procurement Act.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky defended Virginia’s efforts in an email to The Virginia Mercury.

“Governor Northam is committed to protecting the safety of all Virginians during this crisis. Working closely with the Virginia Department of Health and our cross-agency Health Equity Working Group, the administration is working to provide culturally-relevant outreach to the Latino community and address unique concerns,” she said. Accompanying her statement was a two-page summary of programs launched — from translating announcements to health department guidance for migrant labor camps — and various calls and meetings with Latino leaders and stakeholders.

But those leaders say very little assistance of any kind from any level of government is reaching those who desperately need it.

“We have a problem, a big problem, with the level of assistance that the vulnerable Latino community is getting right now in Virginia,” said Walter Tejada, president of the Virginia Latino Leaders Council and former chairman of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors.

“These are frontline workers – frontline heroes – who do not have the luxury of staying home and making a living doing Zoom conferences or teleworking. They wipe our floors, pluck feathers, pick crops, clean our rooms,” he said.

A server brings food to customers on the patio at Plaza Azteca in Henrico, Va., May 16, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury

African-Americans have also suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus. Though they account for 23 percent of the confirmed cases according to Thursday’s VDH data, they are 19 percent of Virginia’s population.

A key differentiator is language and fear among immigrants that those without documentation could be subject to deportation by a hostile federal government should they show up seeking testing or treatment, said Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Latino Organizations, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“Many of those in the Latino community are essential workers and they have to go to work where they are not having the appropriate protections,” said Aranda-Yanoc, who is also the senior lead organizer for the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program. “And there are also many Latinos who have lost their jobs.”

Other than Web-based instruction in Spanish, active outreach to Latinos to provide information on protecting themselves from the virus and what to do if they have symptoms has been lacking, the leaders said.

“What we need are bilingual staffs that can penetrate into our community, speaking English and Spanish,” Tejada said. “We need a phone bank or a strike force that can reach people and talk to them.”

Testing at commercial labs and doctors’ offices is beyond most Latino families’ means, and free testing is difficult to find, Aguilar said. Things only get tougher for those who test positive for the virus or show symptoms.

“It becomes very hard to stop the spread because then they go back to homes where there may be five to eight people in one apartment, just two rooms. There’s no place for them to isolate and this is an issue that this government needs to address,” said Aranda-Yanoc. “We know that there are hotels with rooms that could be used but are not.”

Aguilar said that it’s folly for the state to imagine that it’s effectively fighting the virus for which there’s no cure or vaccine when it’s not effectively managing the outbreak in the demographic the disease has hit the hardest.

“We want to be a part of the solution, and the only way to do that is to include us in the solution,” he said. “If not, the whole community becomes a victim of circumstance.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]