By Briana Gomez
Photo, left: Briana Gomez and her daughter, Aya, with masks from Chicanista Boutique, a Chicana-owned San Diego business
May 28, 2020 (San Diego) -- COVID-19 has plagued millions globally, hitting San Diego at over 5,000 cases according to recent CDC data. The virus has disproportionately impacted San Diego County’s Latino population.
According to the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, 60 percent of COVID-19 positive tests in San Diego County are among Hispanic or Latinos. Equally troubling, CBS 8 reports that 41.1% of deaths locally are among Latinos.
Lori Saldaña (photo, right), former State Legislator posted on Facebook, “Here's the thing people need to understand about San Diego County: Latinos are 33% of the population and 60% of the COVID cases ID'd so far.”
Saldaña and other Latino advocates are raising serious concerns over the dangers posed by COVID-19 to Latino and Hispanic community members locally compared to the white majority.
Why are Latinos locally suffering disproportionate rates of COVID-19 cases and mortalities?
One likely reason is that many Latinos are essential workers in jobs with frequent contact with the public, such as employees in grocery stores, hotels and medical facilities. Others have toiled in jobs that prior to recent orders, lacked social distancing and masks, such as farmworkers harvesting crops.
Estela de los Rios, a Latina community leader in El Cajon, believes reopening of restaurants and retail locally has occurred too soon. She voices concerns over minority workers forced to return to jobs and potentially be exposed to the virus. “I’m so upset that white privileged supervisors and mayor did what they wanted,” she posted on Facebook after supervisors voted to accelerate reopening these businesses. “We are not ready for phase 2…Human lives are being sacrificed for our economy.”
Crowded living conditions and reliance on dense public housing could also be factors in higher rates of the virus in areas such as the Chula Vista and other South Bay communities, which have been hard hit, enabling the disease to spread more rapidly.
Underlying health conditions can also exacerbate the coronavirus. Nancy Maldonado, CEO of the Chicano Federation, faults long-standing “structural inequalities.” She told CBS 8, “Latinos are more likely to have underlying health conditions such as heart disease, obesity, asthma.”
Roberto Alcantar, chief strategy officer for the Chicano Federation, concludes, “It’s the systematic failure in our community. It is the underfunding of our safety net and our health and human services that has lead to this crisis.”
Dr. Wilma Wooten, County Public Health Officer, does not believe there is any genetic predisposition to the virus. She told East County Magazine at a virtual press conference last Thursday, “Everyone reacts differently to COVID-19. I have not heard of any variants in response based on race or ethnicity.” She added, “We are trying to get outreach to all of our various sectors which include individuals that are represented from across the county and across various diverse communities.”
Dr. Wooten noted that underlying conditions are also factors. “With the Hispanic community and people of color and low income areas, we know that those individuals have increased co-morbidity whether it’s hypertension or asthma, or chronic lung disease like COPD.”
The language barrier could be another issue. County resources in Spanish and Arabic can now be found at coronavirus-sd.com. Both the stay-at-home order and other resources are available in multiple languages at https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/sdc/hhsa/programs/phs/community_epidemiology/dc/2019-nCoV/materials.html.
Amid efforts to get word out into Hispanic communities on information such as facial covering requirements, some local businesses including Chicanista Boutique in San Diego and Corona Crizzo have begun making masks in Mexican-themed fabrics.
The cities of El Cajon and La Mesa have about 30 percent Hispanic populations, similar to the overall county rate, based on 2015 data compiled by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). El Cajon also has other minority groups and many may wonder if they also face the same risk factors as the Hispanic community.
While localized data on COVID-19 is available at https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/96feda77f12f46638b984fcb1d17bd24, there is a lack of specified data regarding numbers of Latino cases, per city.
The rising cases of COVID-19 in San Diego also correlate with an uprising of the virus in neighboring Tijuana. Despite this, the Chicano Federation has said it’s found no evidence of COVID-19 cases locally tied to border crossings.
Although the consensus among experts in the United States finds no link between migration of immigrants and cases in the Latino community on the U.S. side, it is more likely that U.S. nationals are bringing COVID-19 to Tijuana.
"This is not an immigration problem at all, to us," Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder told ABC News in mid-May, referring to the influx of cases in Tijuana. "We think it's American citizens that are coming up, or dual citizens, or those that are authorized to enter the United States because they work in San Diego."
According to the government of the State of Baja California, MX, there have been over 1,800 confirmed cases in Tijuana – almost half of the cases in the whole state.
Cases in Tijuana are also more likely to be fatal, according to recent data, with the death rate reaching 24 percent of cases compared to a 16 percent death rate in the State of Baja California, due largely to a lack of medical resources.
There are approximately 265,000 U.S. Americans living in Tijuana, reported by the Union Tribune earlier this month.
Currently the international border is closed for all but essential travel; non-essential crossings for purposes such as shopping or tourism are banned. Prior to the quarantine, the San Ysidro Border reflected an average of 70,000 vehicles and 20,000 pedestrians crossing (legally) northbound from Tijuana into San Diego each day. This number is separate from the Otay Border and significant numbers of these travelers also cross back into Tijuana.
Many Mexicans, Americans, and dual citizens live on one side of the border and work or attend school on the other side. Other individuals may have family on the opposite side and make frequent visits. Many US Americans also vacation or shop in Mexico, especially neighboring Baja California which relies heavily on tourism to sustain the economy. Thus COVID-19 is having economic as well as medical impacts on Latinos and businesses reliant on cross-border traffic in both San Diego County and Baja, Mexico.
Locally the Chicano Federation of San Diego has set up funds to assist low income families and individuals impacted by COVID-19 as well as a separate fund to aid farm workers. You can donate at https://www.chicanofederation.org/.
Briana Gomez holds an MBA from the University of La Verne and a Bachelor of Science in International Business from Azusa Pacific University. A freelance journalist, she is originally from La Mesa and lived in Japan for five years in her youth. She later took an interest in travelling and learning about global cultures and cultural identities She taught English in Hungary in 2013 before obtaining her master’s degree, then returning to the U.S. to pursue journalism and research multicultural communication.
Gomez has written for online and local publications in Budapest and in her native San Diego, including coverage in East County Magazine on multicultural communities. She is passionate about human rights and minority issues, bringing awareness to ethnic groups in our region. She also sits on the committee for the Arab and Muslim Community Coalition and is an active member of the San Diego Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and San Diego House of Lebanon.
East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/.
You can donate to support our local journalism efforts during the pandemic at https://www.EastCountyMedia.org/donate.