Latino Georgians hit hard by COVID-19

On July 10, Ana, 26, drove her mother to the hospital. The symptoms were minor, but enough for Ana to worry about her mother. Three days later, they got the lab results back. Positive for COVID-19. Ana, a customer service representative, called off work, and stayed home to take care of her mom, who is diabetic. Ana had no symptoms, but because she was looking after her mother decided to get tested. On July 17, her mother was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Her mother felt cold, had difficulty breathing, and was confused. The next day, Ana received her own lab results. Positive for COVID-19.

Ana went to the emergency room, but was discharged the same night. She spent a month in her home, experiencing fevers, body pains and difficulty breathing. To this day, her sense of smell remains altered by the disease.

Ana lives with her parents, her 10-year-old son, her three siblings and two nephews. All of them, except her son caught the deadly virus. Ana’s mom was in an intensive care unit for two months and came home on Sept. 18. “While my mom was in ICU, we nearly lost her,” Ana said.

Ana, a DACA recipient who asked only her first name be used, and her family are among the 55,598 Latinos in Georgia who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of Dec. 9. The Peach State has reported a total of 476,044 cases of COVID-19 and 9,205 coronavirus-related deaths as of Dec. 13.With roughly 1 million Latino residents, Latinos or Hispanics, of any race, make up 9.8% of Georgia’s population, but they account for 15% of coronavirus cases in the state, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched by The Atlantic dedicated to collecting data on COVID-19 in the United States and its territories.

The following graphs show the racial breakdown of COVID-19 cases in Georgia. The COVID Tracking Project flagged the group’s case proportion as suggestive of ethnic disparity due to three criteria: it is at least 33% higher than the Census Percentage of Population, it remains elevated whether the project includes or excludes cases with unknown race or ethnicity and it is based on at least 30 actual cases or deaths.

As the breadwinner in the family, the month Ana was out of work put her under an immense financial strain. At the time she was diagnosed, family members from Mexico were staying at the house, making it even more cramped. They weren’t able to leave the United States until Aug. 15 due to travel restrictions. This meant Ana had to financially support 12 people.

“Everything fell on top of my shoulders,” Ana said. “My job paid 60% of my salary, but it was not enough to make ends meet, being the only income in the house.”

Ana had to use some her savings to pay utility bills up to $600, and looked to the non-profit organization the Latin American Association for help to pay her mortgage. She went back to work on Aug. 27, but has to cover the costs of her mom’s medical treatments, as she does not have health insurance. “Like any other daughter, I did my best to make sure everything was met,” Ana said.

Aixa Pascual, managing director of Civic Engagement and Advocacy of the Latin American Association, said the Georgia-based non-profit organization has helped roughly 600 families with financial assistance for rent and utilities. “At the beginning [of the pandemic], what we saw was an economic impact immediately,” Pascual said. “By the second half of March, we were already having people requesting financial assistance for rent. The number one need that we’ve seen is financial assistance for rent.”

Pascual said many of the organization’s clients, most of which hail from Mexico and Central America, faced heavy financial burdens during the first months of the pandemic after losing their jobs. Many, Pascual said, worked in leisure, construction and restaurants, industries that were forced to shut down during lockdowns.

Pascual pointed out that many Latino immigrants in Georgia and across the United States were excluded from government economic aid because those who do not have a social security number are ineligible to apply. Undocumented immigrants and mixed status families were excluded from the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package.

“The pandemic and the economic crisis they just have shone a light on these inequities,” Pascual said. “Our families are going to start 2021 in a position of more disadvantaged than when they started 2020.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified discrimination, gaps in education and wealth, healthcare access and housing conditions, specifically living in multigenerational households like Ana, as factors that put racial and ethnic “minorities” at increased risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. “Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick from COVID-19,” read CDC guidelines.

The following graphs show the racial breakdown of COVID-19 deaths in Georgia. Latinos or Hispanics, of any race, make up 6% of total deaths in the state. 

The high number of COVID-19 cases among Latino Georgians could also be attributed to their overrepresentation in the essential workforce, including farm and poultry factory workers. In Georgia, one in eight workers is an immigrant, making up a crucial part of the state’s labor force, according to the American Immigration Council.

Back in April, hundreds of poultry workers in Hall County, in northeastern Georgia, tested positive for the novel virus. Hall County, with a population of 206,349 residents, has so far reported 14,297 cases of the coronavirus, and has in the past two weeks reported 914 cases per 100,000 residents. Hispanics or Latinos make up 9.4% of the population of the Hall County city of Gainesville, known as “Poultry Capital of the World,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

One out of every four Latino poultry workers were testing positive for COVID-19, according to local reports from June. Latinos make up 30% of the workforce in the meat and poultry industry but 56% of cases, according to Atlanta Magazine.

Maria del Rosario Palacios, executive director of Gainesville-based non-profit GA Familias Unidas, said the majority of working spaces in the poultry industry have been crowded and had little ventilation before the pandemic hit. “There’s folks crowded, elbow to elbow, trying to help move the production line as fast as they can because, in most plants, people are paid by production. They’re paid by the pound,” said Palacios, whose mother worked in the poultry industry for over 20 years. 

Palacios said immigrant workers, especially those who are undocumented, are particularly vulnerable because their access to healthcare is limited. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible to enroll in Medicaid or to purchase coverage through the Affordable Care Act Marketplaces.

Meanwhile, in southern Georgia, cases spiked due to infections among farmworkers, according to the non-profit Georgia Health News. In May, COVID-19 cases tripled in Echols County after a testing event held by the South Health District and the Migrant Farmworkers Clinic, Valdosta Daily Times reported. Latinos make up 24.6% of the population in Echols County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

When the pandemic hit, non-profit Hispanic Alliance shifted its services. The mission now was to make sure no Latino family in the city of Gainesville went hungry. The Hispanic Alliance, known as La Alianza, in Spanish, received 40,000 pounds in food donations and has distributed fresh, nutritious and culturally appropriate ingredients to 9,000 families since April, according to Vanesa Sarazua, founder and executive director of the Hispanic Alliance.

“Our operations switched to helping people with basic needs,” said Sarazua, who contracted COVID-19 in July. “We don’t see the situation getting any better.”

Sarazua said last November’s food distribution was the second largest one, with 700 families receiving assistance through their drive through. The largest event was in May, with 750 families receiving boxes of food. 

Sarazua said many Latino Georgians in her community struggle with not knowing when they should seek medical attention, and worry about losing their jobs and working less hours if they take time off from work. “They had to tough out the covid storm on their own with no resources,” Sarazua said.

Among initiatives to address the disparities affecting Latino communities in the state, Emory University teamed up in August with the Mexican Consulate in the capital city of Atlanta to test Latino residents for COVID-19. Organizations like Community Organized Relief Efforts, have conducted free testing in Georgia. The Latino Community Fund launched in March a COVID-19 relief fund to assist vulnerable communities, aiding in food distribution, testing and rent payments.

“We need to discuss how to make things better while it’s still fresh in our minds,” Sarazua said. “We need to improve on protecting critical, frontline essential workers in a crisis. It’s very important to discuss and plan ahead as a nation.”