“Face challenges, fear, and frustration by seeking out knowledge and opportunities for growth.”–Fanny Mairena
COVID-19 has plunged numerous nations into a public health emergency. To date, in the United States alone, there have been more than four million confirmed COVID -19 cases and more than 150,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus.
Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have been exposed, and those unresolved disparities now put Latinx and other people of color at an increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Anti-Latinx prejudice and decades of institutional racism have only exacerbated the effects of deeply-entrenched inequality.
From the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, through the twenty-first century, a long history of discrimination based on national origin has impacted Hispanic (people who speak Spanish and/or are descended from Spanish-speaking populations) and Latinx (persons with Latin American heritage) communities. There are documented instances of mob violence against Spanish-speaking people throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
For instance, during the Great Depression, approximately 2 million people of Mexican descent were forcibly removed from the country — up to 60 percent of whom were American citizens. As recently as August 3, 2019, a gunman entered a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, targeting Hispanic shoppers – killing 23 people and injuring 23 others. His attack was a response to what he called the Hispanic invasion of Texas.
Although southwestern states did not have the explicit Jim Crow laws that were enacted throughout the south, Latino people were excluded from restaurants, movie theaters and schools. In fact, it was not until the landmark ruling in Mendez v. Westminster that the law prevented the segregation students of Mexican descent in California schools. As late as 2016, 52 percent of Latinos surveyed by Pew Research Center said they had experienced discrimination or had been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity.
Systemic racism has historically prevented Latinx communities and other communities of color from having fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health. Now, those inequities have left Latinx communities disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19. For instance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health recently conducted a study of Hispanic subgroups including any person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.
Hispanics were found to have the highest uninsured rates of any racial or ethnic group within the United States. Immigration policies directly impact health care access for Latinx families. Approximately 34% of the Latinx population in the United States are immigrants. At this time, the majority of unauthorized or undocumented immigrants living in the United States come from Latin American countries. Both undocumented immigrants and many lawfully residing immigrants are ineligible for Medicaid and other government benefits.
Under the Trump Administration, immigrants who receive public benefits (including non-emergency Medicaid) and who apply for a visa, legal permanent residence, or an adjustment of status can be determined to be a public charge. The chilling effects of this rule and other restrictive immigration policies have created a hostile environment that makes it incredibly difficult for many immigrants to seek health care for COVID-19 testing or treatment.
For families that have access to health care, language barriers make many hesitant about accessing medical care. There are also higher rates of certain chronic health conditions in Latinx communities including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, HIV/AIDS, obesity, suicide, and liver disease. These conditions can make COVID-19 more dangerous and increase the likelihood of mortality.
Data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018 showed that less than 30% of workers in the U.S. are able to work from home, falling to lower numbers in minority populations, at 20% among African American and 16% among Hispanics. This make social distancing guidelines difficult to follow. Essential workers are disproportionately people of color. Often, they do not have access to paid sick leave and health insurance. There is Insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) available for essential workers who are not in the healthcare system. Latinx are more likely to live in crowded households due to a lack of living wage and unaffordable housing, increasing the risk of exposure to family members living in the same household.
COVID-19 is engendering fear and presenting a challenge to vulnerable communities and health care professionals. Community- and faith-based organizations, employers, healthcare systems and providers, public health agencies, policy makers, and others should be collaborating to promote fair access to health care. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Hispanic and Latinx communities will need reliable resources to ensure easy access to information, affordable testing, and medical care.