We are living in unprecedented times. Typically wars, famines, and natural disasters only affect portions of our planet. In the U.S., we casually scroll through Instagram ads asking for donations to Syrian refugees. We turn on our TVs to hear about the thousands of children and their families at the U.S.-Mexico border and nonchalantly change the channel. We read about the re-education camps for Muslims in China and simply open a new tab. A mere echo of what these people have endured has affected the collective consciousness in a way we haven’t seen in recent memory. Moreover, we are typically unaffected and numb to the mass suffering that plagues our world, but not our own personal world. However, today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we as global citizens are united in our struggle and lived experience. We are living not in a plagued city or country, but a plagued world.
On March 26th, the United States surpassed China in its number of reported cases and deaths related to COVID-19. Everyone on American soil has been affected in some way, but in a country with strong colonial legacies, no right to health, and socio-economic, geographic, and racial inequalities, some have been drastically more affected than others, one of these being the Latinx community. New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has asked SUNY Albany President Havidán Rodríguez, along with the Health Department and Northwell Health, to conduct research to better understand why minorities are so disproportionately affected and why some neighborhoods are more impacted than others (NBC New York). Well, we know why.
Long before COVID-19, social determinants of health, like access to education, healthy food, and transportation, have impacted minority populations and led to health disparities. For example, according to the Office of Minority Health, Hispanics have the highest uninsured rates of any racial or ethnic group within the United States, with only 49% of Hispanics having private insurance coverage (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). This is partly due to the wide wage gap directly affecting the Latinx community. Furthermore, no matter what their job, where they live, or how much education or experience they have, Latinas in the U.S. still make on average 46% less than white men and 31% less than white women (Lean In). When people in the Latinx community are able to seek medical attention, their doctor may not speak their language or understand their culture. In California, a state with 40% of the population identifying as Latinx, only 6% of physicians are Latinx (Hispanic Network). In addition, only about a third of California physicians speak Spanish and only 23% of Spanish-speaking physicians are Latinx (Moreno). For many individuals, this creates language barriers and issues of cultural competency (ModernHealthCare.com).
Although many have called COVID-19 “the great equalizer” in that it has affected every community, every family, and every individual, it is anything but an equalizer (Garsd, Marketplace). This pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated the already clear health inequalities and negative health outcomes for minority and at-risk populations. Pew Research Center has stated that Hispanics are overall more likely than other Americans to see COVID-19 as a major threat to health and finances. As stated before, language barriers have always been an issue (Krogstad, Pew Research Center). However, critical information and updates about the severity of the pandemic, available resources, and necessary precautions are often only in English (NBC New York). This lack of information contributes to a lack of testing for the virus (which is already an issue considering the U.S.’s inadequate amount of available test kits).
Additionally, around eight million Hispanics are employed in restaurants, hotels, and other service-sector positions. As essential workers unable to work from home, they are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. According to U.S. congressman Joaquin Castro, less than 1 in 5 Latinx workers can work from home (Hernandez, AA.com). However, for these same reasons, they are also at a higher risk of job loss and are among the hardest hit by pay cuts and job losses as opposed to other Americans (Krogstad, Pew Research Center). Around half of Hispanics say they or someone in their household has taken a pay cut or lost a job. These job losses also contribute to the lack of insurance coverage or medical access, which is already an issue in this community.
In addition, immigrant status is a problem as many hospitals won’t see patients who aren’t legal residents and the public hospitals that do, are being impacted. Many Hispanics fear even getting tested or going to the hospital since the U.S. government has stated that, “if anyone who wants a green card or is pursuing citizenship uses federal money such as public health benefits, it will count against them and [they] likely won’t get citizenship” (MDNewsLine). And if patients can be seen at a hospital, there are often implicit biases from healthcare workers against minorities. This causes certain patients to not receive the best treatment or not be treated over a more desirable patient.
This is overwhelmingly true in New York City where 3 million individuals, about 29% of the population, identify as Latinx. According to the New York Department of Health, the Hispanic community has the highest death rate among COVID-19 cases at 34%. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio commented, “The truth is, that in so many ways the negative effects of coronavirus - the pain it's causing, the death it's causing - tracks with other profound healthcare disparities that we have seen for years and decades in the city” (NBC New York). Even Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the New York City Health Department Commissioner, is troubled over this situation. “I am very concerned when I see the large percentage of Latinos who have died of this illness and even though we have made lots of efforts to reassure people that all of our public hospitals see individuals independent of their immigration status, independent of insurance status,” he said. New York City has finally begun to set up pop-up COVID-19 testing centers in recent days in minority neighborhoods like Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, according to The New York Times.
Surprisingly, Washington state has paralleled results to New York City. Last week, the Washington State Department of Health reported that Hispanics made up roughly 21% of confirmed cases, while they’re only 13% of the overall population (Oliver, KXLY.com). However, race and ethnicity are only known for about half the cases in the state (Cary, Tri-City Herald). We wonder then, when many Hispanics can’t even access healthcare or be tested, could this number be higher than reported?
In conclusion, everyone, worldwide and in our own neighborhoods, is being affected by this virus. Cases and deaths have come from every community, old, young, rich, and poor. But we mustn’t forget in a time of widespread impact that marginalized communities have suffered long before COVID-19. This pandemic is only shining a light on the issues and aggravating them. We must fight the structural violence at play, and work to end these appalling health disparities, pandemic or no pandemic.