One of the early stories that emerged from the nation’s first COVID-19 hotspot was on the disproportionate infection and fatality toll that low-income residents and communities of color faced given their role as essential, frontline workers.
Now, that same story is taking place across the nation, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread across urban and rural communities. In Texas during its surge, Latinos have made up almost half of the infections. In Los Angeles, people of color are dying at disproportionate rates, and Latinx infections continue to skyrocket. While it is often said that the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, the data has made it clear that poverty, race and ethnicity are clear determinants of how people will fare against the disease.
Since the start of the pandemic, the federal response has failed to provide leadership on the production of personal protective equipment or a coordinated testing strategy. Among its many failures, we can add an unwillingness to tackle the health inequities that were evident from the start of the crisis in New York City.
In a recent report published by UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, we examined health data from New York City and Los Angeles and found troubling patterns. In both cities, Latinx and Black residents were twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white residents, and residents in high-poverty areas had the highest infections and death rates.
Early on, it was clear that essential workers were bearing the brunt of the crisis, and that their increased exposure came from the workplace or on other public spaces such as transit. Yet, by the time a second spike hit Los Angeles and other cities faced a deadly surge, there was still no action plan to improve labor protocols, increase resources in underserved communities, and target testing for those who data shows face a greater risk.
The result is that local governments are struggling to contain the devastating health and financial inequities that COVID-19 is wreaking.
In Los Angeles, local officials have targeted testing resources in predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods and launched various financial and food assistance programs, which explicitly do not request any information about immigration status. Our study found that Angelenos between the ages of 18 and 40 had the highest rate of infection, underscoring the impact it has on the working population.
The lack of access to health care and financial support for undocumented immigrants are a devastating barrier for families in crisis. Over 10 percent of Los Angeles County residents are uninsured, compared to 8 percent in New York City. About a third of the population in both regions is foreign born. A national strategy to provide medical care amid the pandemic would have curbed deaths and stymied infections.
Economic recovery will not be possible without an infusion of support to help right the injustices that already vulnerable populations are grappling with under the devastation caused by COVID-19.
It’s clear we need a national strategy to lift communities out of despair. In a time of crisis, it’s time to put aside partisan differences and put together a stimulus package that provides desperately needed financial relief, one which does not exclude immigrants who are the backbone of the economy. Now is the time to put together a national testing and tracing strategy that focuses on communities that the data shows face the greatest risk, and we must start a conversation about improving access to health care.
While local governments have made significant efforts to step in, it will be impossible to move the needle without the strength of the national government. Despite the challenges, mayors and governors must continue to step up and provide essential support to those bearing the worst of the pandemic.
New York City was an early signal of the effects of COVID-19, and it’s a story that is repeating across diverse communities throughout the nation. With seven months under our belt since the detection of the first case in the U.S., we have clear data to help us make smart policy decisions that target those who are in greatest need. At this point, inaction is a political choice that will prove to have devastating impacts on our economy and wellbeing.
Sonja Diaz is the founding executive director for the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative.
Laura Martinez is a postdoctoral fellow in the UCLA Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a research associate at the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture.