'The virus doesn't discriminate but governments do': Latinos disproportionately hit by coronavirus

In some areas of the US, Covid-19 is killing Latinos at up to three times the rate that it is killing white people, even as they are among the least able to access care

Latinos across the US are disproportionately getting sick from coronavirus, in some regions being infected and hospitalized at up to three times the rate of white Americans, a Guardian analysis found.

And the Latino communities that are worst hit by the crisis are among the least able to access the healthcare systems and unemployment benefits that could bring relief.

New data trickling out of cities and states are making increasingly clear the virus’s unequal toll on minorities. In New York City, data has shown that Covid-19 is killing Latino people at 1.6 times the rate that it is killing white people.

  • In Utah, Latinos are being infected and hospitalized at three times the rate of white people. Whereas Latinos make up 14% of the state’s population, 29% of the patients who tested positive for Covid-19 in the state identified as Latino.

  • In Oregon, Latinos accounted for 22% of coronavirus cases where demographic information was available. Latinos make up 13% of Oregon’s population.

  • In New Jersey, Latinos make up 19% of the population, but nearly 30% of Covid-19 patients in that state identified as Hispanic.

  • In Washington state, 25% of those infected are Latino while they make up only 13% of the state’s total population.

Several states have not reported the racial breakdown of confirmed cases, and those that have are often offering limited and preliminary numbers. But the figures are not universally bleak. In some states, including California, the infection and death rates appear comparatively low for Latinos. Though Latinos make up 39% of California’s population, they account for 30% of Covid-19 deaths.

Still, public health experts warn that the official statistics may be underestimating the virus’s toll on Latino communities wary of seeking medical care due to a lack of health insurance, and in many cases fear that going to a hospital will expose them to immigration authorities.

“I would put lots of grains of salt on these figures,” said David Hayes-Bautista, who directs the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine. “Think about who had access to the testing, and who’s getting into the hospitals.”

The disparities boil down to differences not only in race but also in income and access, Hayes-Bautista said. “The problems aren’t genetic,” he noted. “They are structural.”

Farmworkers clean a carrot field in Arvin, California, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Farmworkers clean a carrot field in Arvin, California, during the coronavirus pandemic. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Economic disparities, health vulnurabilities

With the exception of diabetes, Latinos on average have lower rates of heart disease, cancers, hypertension and other underlying conditions that make people especially vulnerable to Covid-19, Hayes-Bautista noted. But Latinos make up a large proportion of what is now considered the “essential” workforce of grocery store staff, restaurant workers, caretakers, cleaners and delivery workers, and are putting themselves at the frontlines of the pandemic.

Christian Zamarron, whose family is from Mexico, works part-time in an Amazon warehouse in Chicago where he makes $15 an hour. Amazon promised workers an extra $2 an hour for working during the pandemic. But like his part-time colleagues, Zamarron doesn’t get health insurance. Instead, Amazon provides $9 extra a week in “health pay” that can go toward health care costs.

“My bills haven’t stopped, so I have to keep going,” Zamarron said. “I need the money, but I’m there to speak up for my co-workers. A lot of the stuff that we’re moving isn’t even essential goods. This is reckless endangerment of their lives.”

For many Latinos, the economic fallout from the pandemic is just as worrying as the health risks, leaving many with little choice but to risk their lives at frontline jobs. But unemployment has also disproportionately affected Latinos. Compared to the overall US population, Latinos disproportionately say that they or someone in their household has taken a pay cut, lost a job or both since the pandemic hit, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.

For Rafaela Berry and her mom, Brazilian immigrants now living in Atlanta, coronavirus is already slashing income. Berry works as a nanny and in the past has helped her mom clean houses. In recent weeks, more and more of their clients have cancelled cleanings, she said, either because they’ve been laid off, or out of concern that a visitor could bring the virus into the house. They used to clean four or five houses a day. Now there’s one house to clean every four days.

To get by, Berry’s mom began selling $5 masks she sewed herself. For Berry, it’s impossible to separate the health risks from the economic toll the virus could take.

“The sickness is scary, but not so much for the health risks,” she said. “If one of us gets sick and goes to the hospital, we’ll have medical bills. But we also won’t be able to make money to pay them off.”

With economic disparities layered upon health disparities, the Latino workers who most need access to health insurance and government benefits are least able to access it. Latinos have the highest uninsured rate of any racial or ethnic group in the US. And only 38% of Latinos working low-wage jobs have access to health coverage, according to a report from Mijente and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, published Thursday.

Juana, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador and her husband Saul, from Honduras, both lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Juana, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador and her husband Saul, from Honduras, both lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

‘Governments discriminate’

Moreover, the Trump administration policies discouraging Latino immigrants from making use of public health insurance and government benefits such as food stamps – as well as the continuation of immigration enforcement – even as Covid-19 spread through the country, has ratcheted up the fear that asking for assistance could land them on the radar of immigration officials or even separate them from their children.

At Massachusetts General in Boston, medical staff are trying to “hammer the message in our Latino communities that it’s safe to get tested, it’s safe to get care”, said Dr Joseph Betancourt, the vice-president and chief equity and inclusion officer at the hospital. “But of course there’s still mistrust. Of course people are hesitant.” And despite the hesitance to get care, it’s clear that Latinos are being disproportionately infected, Betancourt noted; they make up 35% to 40% of coronavirus patients each week, even though normally, only about 9% of the patients at Mass General are Latino.

“The last four years have been very, very heavy,” said Luz Gallegos, director of the Todec legal center in California’s Coachella valley. Gallegos, whose uncle died on 31 March of complications from Covid-19, said for a community that has “been overwhelmed with attacks from the government, every day, with every tweet, the coronavirus is just adding to our trauma”.

Luis Mendez organizes food boxes to send to minorities in need during the Covid-19 lockdown in Garden City, New York.
Luis Mendez organizes food boxes to send to minorities in need during the Covid-19 lockdown in Garden City, New York. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

Gallegos hasn’t been able to properly mourn her uncle’s death – not only because she and her family weren’t able to hold him and comfort him in his last moments, or see his body after he died, but also she has been working nonstop to help anxious community members, who are calling into Todec’s hotline at “3, 4 or even 5 in the morning”, she said. “When we answer the calls, we don’t know if it’s going to be OK. But we’re trying to lift their spirits, anyway.”

Latinos make up almost three-quarters of the estimated 10.5m undocumented people living in the US. Although they commonly have taxes deducted from paychecks, undocumented people typically cannot benefit from unemployment assistance. Nor will they see the stimulus checks of up $1,200 that many Americans will receive.

“The virus doesn’t discriminate. But governments do,” said Leticia Casildo, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras living in New Orleans, who has spent recent weeks delivering food to immigrant families as part of her organizing role with the nonprofit Familias Unidas en Acción.

“Unfortunately people don’t see us as worth saving,” Casildo said in Spanish. “The good thing about the undocumented community is that we’re used to creating our own reality and finding ways to take care of each other.”

Advocates urging lawmakers to step in have made some headway. This week California governor Gavin Newsom announced $125m in relief to the state’s undocumented residents. While leaders in Chicago and New York City have created relief programs for immigrants and refugees, California alone promises help statewide.

“Every Californian, including our undocumented neighbors and friends, should know that California is here to support them during this crisis,” Newsom said when he announced the policy. But the aid, which will provide $1,000 to about 150,000 families, will reach only a fraction of the estimated 2m undocumented immigrants living in California.

Day laborers and supporters take part in a demonstration in Los Angeles to demand that undocumented workers receive emergency financial aid.
Day laborers and supporters take part in a demonstration in Los Angeles to demand that undocumented workers receive emergency financial aid. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

“This is obviously a historic development,” said Christian Arana, policy director at the Latino Community Foundation in San Francisco. “But $125m is just a drop in the bucket in terms of need,” he said, adding that $1,000 won’t cover a month of rent in many areas of the state.

Iliana García-Ruiz, programs manager at Nuestra Casa, a social service agency in California’s Bay Area, said the need is stretching their food bank program and that demand has doubled since the outbreak started.

“We’re probably most fearful of the repercussions for the future and how families are going to recover,” said García-Ruiz, with many of the agency’s clients burning through their modest savings to eat and pay bills in one of the nation’s most expensive regions.

Still, despite all the pain, Todec’s Gallegos said she sees the crisis as “a sign of God”.

“Our immigrant community, our undocumented community has always been essential,” she said. “Now it’s time for all of us, our governments and lawmakers to show compassion and take care of the communities that have put themselves on this line.”


Maanvi Singh and Mario Koran

The GuardianTramp

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