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Disproportionate: The impacts of COVID-19 on Oregon's Latino community
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Disproportionate: The impacts of COVID-19 on Oregon's Latino community

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When criminal justice major Vanessa Cisneros popped into the Zoom meeting meant to educate the Linn-Benton Community College staff and community on the challenges Latino students have faced, she first had to offer an apology.

She was stationed in her living room in front of her computer, and her 7-year-old daughter paraded back and forth behind her while her toddler pulled and tugged his way into her lap, demanding a story.

“I have kids, and it’s chaotic,” Cisneros said. “Just ignore the noise.”

It’s not unlike the experience of any working mother over the last year juggling online learning and working from home.

Women have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80% of the 1.1 million people who left the work force in September — when schools solidified online learning plans — were women.

And while COVID-19 has affected women more than men, it’s also affected low-income households as unemployment rose and stimulus checks meant to bridge the gaps in income stalled, the virus taking its toll on those most financially vulnerable and populations traditionally marginalized while those with higher socioeconomic status and social privilege fared better.

But in Oregon, one group has continued to bear the brunt of COVID-19 regardless of gender, socioeconomic standing or employment status.

Oregon’s Latino community makes up about 13% of the state’s population but, for the last year, has accounted for anywhere from 25% to 30% or more of the state’s virus cases.

“It’s not like a Latino is standing next to a white person and COVID-19 picks the Latino,” said Miriam Cummins, the executive director of Casa Latinos Unidos, a Corvallis-based nonprofit that provides low-cost basic needs services and culturally specific programs to the Latino community. “There is institutional racism and cultural reasons for why COVID affects our community so disproportionately.”

The family

“I can speak to the reality of what it is to be Latino in Oregon and having COVID disproportionately affect my community,” said Javier Cervantes, the director of institutional equity, inclusion and diversity for Linn-Benton Community College.

It was Cervantes who jumped in to fill the gap between the time Cisneros' screen went blank with the immediate demands of a toddler and when it flashed back on to discuss the long-term demands of raising two children while navigating online learning.

“The thing about Latinos,” Cervantes said, “is when we talk about the family unit, we talk about brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, grandparents. It’s not just mom, dad and the kids. It’s not just who is living in our house, like it’s sometimes accepted by the American culture.”

But for the Latino community, that definition of family often does reside under one roof.

“Even as first-generation, you don’t turn your back on family,” Cervantes said. “You will see Abuelo and Abuelita living in the same household as young students, so when you have an aging parent or grandparent in the house, that risk (of exposing someone to COVID-19) is shared by everyone in the house.”

It’s a risk Esperanza Herrera-Moore isn’t willing to take.

The South Albany High School student was just elected class president, and nearly every other Monday, she logs onto Zoom as well to give a report to the Greater Albany Public Schools board on how the year is progressing as the school’s representative.

As GAPS was debating when in-person learning could start safely, Herrera-Moore said she couldn’t be one of the students who donned a mask and took the risk to sit at her desk.

“My grandmother just got her first dose of the vaccine, so it’s not like she can do much yet,” Herrera-Moore said via a phone interview that ensured social distancing for her household. “I still don’t know if I’ll be able to attend school, but I was leaning towards not being able to because I live with my grandmother, and if I get COVID and then she gets COVID — I can’t do that.”

Herrera-Moore continues to hold a part-time job, but she takes precautions by distancing from her grandmother even inside the home. She wears a mask and said she has her own area of the house.

COVID-19 for Herrera-Moore’s family has meant the same struggle most families face, but with additional burdens.

“My two little brothers, one is preschool age and one is in first grade, and he doesn't speak much English at all,” she said, noting that even though he attends one of GAPS' dual-immersion schools, it’s still a struggle. “He has trouble understanding what’s going on in class, so my stepmom has to sit with him and basically teach him.”

And her stepmother has to juggle that responsibility on her own much of the time as her father works in California for a portion of the year.

“I still don’t think people realize that the Hispanic community works out in the fields a lot, and they can’t just do their jobs behind a screen,” Herrera-Moore said. “They have to go out there and expose themselves, and it’s something I had to do moneywise too.”

It’s a risk many take across races, but for the Latino community, the need to work and protect the family often collide.

“I feel like people don’t understand,” Herrera-Moore said. “It’s a dramatic change that had to happen, and some people weren’t willing to take the change. Not everyone took it seriously and didn’t change. I can understand why COVID has definitely impacted communities of color because of the multigenerational housing and because we work in the farms and fields and sometimes can’t be on the computer for work.”

The jobs

“A challenge, I think, is in the way the vaccine groups were rolled out,” said Neftali Pizano, director of primary care practices in Albany for Samaritan Health Services and a member of the leadership team for Linn-Benton Hispanic Advisory Commission.

“There’s no ideal way in doing it, but the multigenerational household and upcoming opening of the agriculture and seafood employees, migrant workers, might have come before schools open,” he said. “If schools open before the vaccine is available to those individuals, I will assume it will cause more cases.”

The entire Latino community does not work in fields, farms and factories. However, in Oregon, communities of color account for a larger percentage of that work force than other races and ethnicities.

According to the Oregon Employment Department, about 35% of the state's agriculture jobs are held by people identifying as Hispanic — the largest share of any other ethnic group. About 15% of the state’s manufacturing work force is made up of members of the Latino community.

“We’re in the fields, meat packing companies, and more likely to live in dwellings that don’t allow us to quarantine safely,” said Cervantes.

The language

“White privilege is real,” said Cummins. Her organization has worked to help get the word out about workplace rights, COVID-19 testing, quarantine procedures and, now, vaccinations.

“When you have grown up with that privilege, of having everything in the language you speak, when you have grown up aware of what is available to you, you don’t understand the experience of not having that, of not knowing the language or the system.”

Cummins said she has worked with families employed at farms who don’t understand they cannot be fired if they do not come to work while experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or after having tested positive.

They’re either unaware of their rights through the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries or have fears around immigration status.

Information, Cummins said, is difficult to come by through the mainstream. The media, she said, often show up in communities of color only in times of trauma or as an afterthought.

And even when information is translated into Spanish, it’s not a silver bullet to closing the communications gap.

“There’s an educational background issue for some people,” Cummins said. “They may not read, and so I try to push the videos because then at least they can listen.”

Videos may work for Spanish-speaking individuals who do not currently read, but the Latino community is made up of more than Spanish-speakers.

Indigenous communities are included in the Latino designation, specifically those indigenous to Central and South America. There are more than 20 native languages from those communities being used in Oregon.

“There’s dozens,” Cummins said. “But even the top four, there’s not much being translated into those languages.”

Communication and culture

“It’s communication,” said Pizano.

“During the first week of a mass vaccination clinic at the Linn County Fairgrounds, I ran into a Hispanic couple and had a quick conversation,” he said.

The couple told Pizano of their hesitancy to receive the vaccine.

“They didn’t have all the information to make a decision, but they were trusting the process,” Pizano said. “Traditional means of communication are not reaching these individuals.”

Both Linn and Benton County have shared information in Spanish about COVID-19. Benton County’s hotline provides a Spanish-speaking representative as well.

Even when communication is reaching people, it doesn’t always mean services can be rendered.

“We got additional funding to start an agricultural outreach team, and we were able to make connections with employees,” said Rocio Munoz, the Benton County health equity coordinator. “But we found out quickly people didn’t want to get tested, they didn’t want to go to BOLI. Even if you do know there’s a resource out there, you don’t want to draw unwanted attention. It has to do with living in the shadows and off the radar.

"This is historical,” she added. “Fear and intimidation, it’s a pretty complex issue.”

In Benton County, videos have been added to the county’s COVID-19 website in Spanish to try and increase communication. According to Munoz, engagement has soared.

“We are reaching double the amount of Spanish-speakers compared to English-speakers with the videos,” she said. It’s also helping to reach a portion of the community that speaks Mam, an indigenous language whose speakers often speak Spanish as well to some degree.

“The key component is just getting information out on informing people what restrictions are, including overcoming cultural barriers on what the virus is and what it can do,” Munoz said. 

"There’s a lot of connection to faith organizations and the feeling of whatever God gives me we will take it and if you believe in God you won’t get infected by the virus,” she added. “There are so many barriers, cultural components that are part of the cause of the correct information going out.”

Aside from language and cultural barriers, for some in the Latino community, there is genuine fear.

To obtain a vaccine, individuals must sign up for an appointment, not at a doctor’s office, but at a mass vaccination clinic. To do so, they need to access the Samaritan Health website, navigate it and enter a Social Security number. The number isn’t a requirement, but that’s not clearly stated. A patient can simply enter zeros without consequence.

Health insurance information, Munoz said, is also asked for on the site, but again, it’s not a requirement.

“This is a word-of-mouth community,” said Pizano. “The best thing is to talk to your friends, your family. Talk to other people. Say, ‘I got my vaccine, it was a positive experience.’”

It’s a tactic Cummins has been employing all year.

“I talk to everyone,” she said.

On Saturday, Casa Latinos Unidos organized a testing event and continued to talk to people.

Cummins said she has often had to walk people through their rights at work, including their right to personal protective equipment.

But the culture, Pizano said, can also cause obstacles.

“I don’t know if it’s commonly understood,” he said. “But the culture is to go to work whether you’re feeling sick or not. There’s a strong work ethic.”

Likewise, the culture of the Latino community continues to transcend socioeconomic status as well.

“If I made $100,000, if my grandparents could not live on their own anymore, they would live with me,” Cummins said. “That’s the culture. It doesn’t matter if you are middle or high middle class.”

The statistics

On Friday, Gov. Kate Brown announced that the state would maintain its vaccination efforts in line with availability of the vaccine but would not yet comply with President Biden’s assertion that all adults be made eligible by May 1.

The state has continued to prioritize communities of color with other disenfranchised groups, but as of this week, the Latino population makes up just 4% of those who have been vaccinated in Oregon.

As of March 10, 26% of COVID-19 cases in Oregon were being reported by individuals who identified as Hispanic.

“When you look at the impact, it cannot be explained away by one thing,” Cummins said. “It’s a combination of cultural and institutional things. And when you look at communities of color, this has been happening forever.

"COVID-19 highlighted inequity but it also let others feel some of the same thing,” she added. “When you’re used to privilege, they say, equity feels like oppression, and during COVID, they got to see a little of what communities of color have had to deal with forever — and maybe they understand now why we’re fighting.”

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