The coronavirus continues to disproportionately affect the Latinx population of Washington. As of Nov. 4, 38% of coronavirus cases in the state were among Latinx, despite being only 13% of the population. These disparities are the result of long experienced social inequities lived by Latinx in Washington and across the United States. The state of Washington is making a difference for this community through policy, research and access to testing, but more must be done to protect and support Latinx families to counter the historic inequities in health and income exacerbated by the pandemic.
As Latina UW faculty researchers working with Latinx communities in Washington state, we have witnessed the devastating impact the pandemic is having on our communities, from outbreaks attributed to poor and unfair work and housing conditions among agriculture and service workers to limited access to health care.
The most common occupations for Latinx workers are in cleaning (25% of the workforce), maintenance (48%), construction (69%), agriculture (89%) and service industries (54%), which represent a large proportion of the “essential” workforce during the pandemic.
Latinx also live in larger multigenerational households with extended family members that help to maintain social cohesion and provide support with housing expenses and child care. However, this limits Latinx ability to isolate themselves if sick and may increase the risk of transmission to vulnerable populations. Limited access to health care services due to a lack of health insurance coverage, which is influenced by factors such as legal status and lack of employment benefits, also increases their risk of health consequences from the virus. Difficulties navigating and understanding COVID-19 related health information and services adds to the already unfair and challenging context Latinx navigate during the pandemic.
These factors directly contribute to the increasing rates of COVID-19 in Latinx communities.
To improve the health and well being of this population, we must continue to systematically collect data on race and ethnicity across the COVID-19 prevention and control efforts, including information about preferred language spoken, so that we can provide accurate and timely information to Latinx communities. This information is crucial for helping state and local health officials effectively stop the spread of COVID-19. Latinx communities need clear, consistent and culturally appropriate health communications, including how to protect themselves. These messages should include the importance of wearing masks, getting tested and participating in contact tracing.
State agencies must invest and enforce personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines for all employees, particularly for those in essential workplaces and positions. And workers must receive information on their rights, responsibilities and support in confidential reporting of unsafe work conditions. Finally, COVID-19 testing and health care should be made available for all individuals but especially for Latinx with limited access and no health insurance.
Washington state has been a leader in addressing COVID-19 by providing worker safety guidelines; a statewide language access initiative to provide translation and dissemination of COVID-19 information; and rapid response grants that allowed researchers and community leaders to codevelop culturally-appropriate messages, and expanded access to COVID-19 testing regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. And on Oct. 19, the Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund was launched.
However, in order to protect the health of all Washingtonians, we need to continue to focus our efforts on those most in need, including Latinx communities.
This pandemic provides an opportunity to address some of the longstanding social inequities that lead to disparate health outcomes. We have an opportunity to improve access to conditions needed to live a healthy life, including having a stable income, access to essentials such as food and housing, a safe work environment and health care. These are all factors we know affect health.
The COVID-19 pandemic further confirms that without an infrastructure to provide these critical resources, communities already at a systematic disadvantage will be even more adversely affected.