The Devastating Impact of Covid-19 on Latinos on the Monterey Peninsula

The lines inside Mi Tierra Market in Seaside were bustling. A busy Friday, patrons buying staples in bulk, choice cuts of meat for weekend meals, hard-to-find spices and fresh vegetables. Supplies for tamale making, ojas (corn husks) and masa sit arranged in the middle of the store, ready for the holiday rush.

The Fremont Street market, within walking distance for many, is a cornerstone of Seaside mom and pop businesses.

It was business as usual on that Friday, except for the masks, hiding noses and mouths that exchanged quick pleasantries in Spanish. “Te puedo ayudarte, senorita (can I help you),” a clerk asked, her kind eyes making eye contact.

The store has seen steady business since COVID-19 broke out this year. One thing is different though – the daily visits for meal preparations have become weekly for many familiar customers.

“Our regular customers,we are seeing once a week, people are only going out when they need to but they come here and we are happy to see them” said Angel Orona, a member of the Mi Tierra Market family. “People are taking precautions, careful about where they go because the virus is hitting us. We hear stories, people are scared,” he said in Spanish.

The store has done an excellent job of providing information to familiar faces and families. No one is allowed in the market without a mask, sanitizers are placed on a stool at the entry and the store sanitizes several times daily. “Signs are up (noting precautions). We want to protect our customers, we are all taking this very seriously.”

As COVID-19 numbers rise across the nation, the numbers are hitting hard in Monterey County, primarily among Latinos. On Sunday a surge of 265 new cases in one day was reported by the Monterey County Health Department. Of those, 45 new cases on the Monterey Peninsula, including 17 in Seaside.

The story behind the statistics is one of fear of job loss, overcrowding, fear of testing, lack of access to healthcare – factors that have propelled Monterey County Latinos into a stratosphere of cases at 93 percent of total cases despite being 61 percent of Monterey County’s population and accounting for 81 percent of deaths.

Last month, the Siembra Latinos Fund of the Community Foundation for Monterey County held a virtual meeting about the impacts of COVID-19 on Monterey County Latinos.

Moderated by local immigration attorney Blanca Zarazua, Elsa Mendoza Jimenez, Director, Monterey County Health Department joined Dr. Fernando Torres-Gil, Director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging and Professor of Social Welfare and Public Policy at UCLA shared data and information about the pandemic’s impacts on Latinos in Monterey County. The discussion is posted on the Seaside Post’s website at www.seasidepostnews.com

Factors Compounding Transmission Among Monterey County Latinos

Discussion centered on factors compounding risk, exposure and spread of COVID-19. They include:
overcrowded living conditions;
sectors of work
fear of job loss for testing positive
fear of testing
lack of access to healthcare
not having healthy insurance.

“Over 25 percent, 26 percent of our Latinx households live in overcrowded conditions, this is a disparate impact and really creates an environment that easily transmits COVID,” Jimenez said, adding that ability to safely isolate when living in cramped conditions exasperates transmission.

“Not only are Latinos at a greater percentage of getting COVID, but when they do get COVID, they are also at a greater likelihood of being hospitalized.”
She shared that 81 percent of Monterey County COVID hospitalized have been Latinos, compared to being just 61 percent of the county’s population.

Overcrowding (source Monterey County Health Department)

Farmworkers: Essential, Not Immune

California has between 500,000 to 800,000 farm workers, most seasonal and averaging an annual salary of $18,000, and 54 percent lack health insurance or sick leave, according to a 2020 “COVID-19 Farmworker Study” conducted by a consortium of groups and tied to the California Institute for Rural Studies. It found that Monterey County farmworkers are three times as likely to contract COVID-19.

While they are essential, they are far from immune.

“We know that essential workers put themselves and their families at risk every time they show up for work during this pandemic and they also face additional risks because they lack the social safety net support afforded to other members of our society,” Jimenez said.

To slow the spread of COVID-19, the report findings support direct payments to impacted farmworkers, unemployment insurance, food assistance, housing support for COVID-19 isolation, counseling and other social services. It also urges better community-based outreach and data collection.

“The social and economic costs of doing nothing, making unfunded and unenforced
recommendations, or issuing voluntary guidelines include adding significant burdens to an
already vulnerable population and jeopardizing the foundation of our food system,” the report says. “We must make considerable investments and take rapid, proactive measures to protect farmworkers at their places of employment, en route to their jobs, and in their home communities…This action is necessary to ensure the viability of the food system all Californians depend on, the economic prosperity of the food and agricultural industry in California, as well as our ability to fight the pandemic by slowing community spread of COVID-19.”

One positive outcome detailed in the report is that 90 percent of farmworkers said that the virus has made them more diligent in taking safety precautions such as changing clothes, and washing hands when they return home from work.

County’s Response with an Equity Lens

In August, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors received a “COVID-19 Disparate Impact Report” from staff. The report set out strategies to address COVID’s impacts on communities of color.

“In addition to just making services available we are really focusing with a health equity lens and a health in all policy lens really trying to identify some of those systems and policies that need to be revised and improved so that we can continue to ensure that all of our resident are able to access those supports they need to improve wellness,” Jimenez said.

Recommendations in the staff report include:

Testing, isolation, quarantine and vaccination support
Improved incentives to increase employer compliance with labor laws
Permanent sick leave policies improved approaches for increasing affordable housing stock including reviewing regulatory hurdles, fees and zoning rules.

Meanwhile, groups on the ground such as California Rural Legal Assistance, the Grower-Shipper Association, areas hospital, cities and nonprofits are banding together to provide personal protective equipment, housing for isolation and information to try and slow the spread with information and resources.

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