ANN ARBOR, MI — Two professors at the University of Michigan say Hispanic communities are more at risk of health and economic consequences of the coronavirus outbreak than their white counterparts.
Paul Fleming and William Lopez said people of color are suffering the harshest impacts of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, because their housing situations, exposure to pollution, access to health care coverage or placement in jail or detention are all worse than whites, “because of the legacy of racist and discriminatory policies made them more likely to be exposed to the virus and have complications.”
Lopez said Hispanics are more likely to be working what are called “essential jobs.”
“Those essential jobs are often face-to-face, and they’re seeing customers, interacting with folks, providing care in ways that other communities — sometimes white communities — are not,” said Lopez, a clinical assistant professor at UM’s School of Public Health.
Many of the communities that have been disproportionately affected are black communities in Detroit, Muskegon, Kent County and Kalamazoo County. Lopez said there are similarities between the black and Hispanic communities in that there are communities are often clustered in particular places with multiple generations in a single house.
The issue of why black and Hispanic communities have higher rates of COVID-19 isn’t because of behavior, Lopez said, but because of systems that have been put in place.
“This is because of systems that have put us — and I’ll say ‘us’ as a member of the Latino community — in positions in which COVID-19 is more likely to happen,” Lopez said.
Lopez said those systems include the prison system, which he said is predominantly black and Hispanic folks, and factory settings like food processing and meatpacking plants. In settings like poultry production, Lopez said those spaces are designed to eliminate space and to minimize restroom breaks.
To Fleming, an assistant professor of health behavior and health education, those kinds of conditions are what put many Hispanics at an increased risk.
“When people’s livelihoods don’t allow them to shelter in place or they have to shelter in place in a high-risk environment, they are going to be more severely affected,” Fleming said.
Fleming said there was a similar scenario in history during the typhus epidemic in the early 20th century. He said the outbreak was caused by employers who provided poor sanitary conditions for their workers, but many people blamed the laborers even though they were not provided with soap and water.
“This example shows how infectious diseases will take advantage of certain conditions and that those conditions are often shaped by those with resources and power,” Fleming said.
While many U.S. residents have been given or are waiting for their economic stimulus checks from the federal government, Fleming said many immigrants have been excluded from those checks and other benefits that make them more vulnerable economically. Both Fleming and Lopez said that to control the spread of COVID-19 in Latino communities, federal, state and local governments must:
- Provide stimulus checks for Latino immigrants and people married to immigrants so they can choose to stay at home
- Ensure communications about stay at home orders and how to protect yourself are available and promoted in several languages, including Spanish and indigenous languages
- Target testing in these communities with large percentages of essential workers
- Combat narratives that “immigrants are disease carriers,” which will only hamper efforts to control the virus
When looking at why COVID-19 is clustering in communities of color, Lopez says we must look at some of the policies the United States has enacted over time like segregation and high incarceration rates. There are also higher rates of pre-existing health conditions that lead to higher mortality rates in communities of color, Lopez said, which is a result of bigger institutional factors.
“Our laws and policies in this country have created conditions that enable the virus to spread more easily among certain groups, including Hispanics,” Fleming said. “These conditions are the result of policies that have disadvantaged Hispanics in the labor market, in education opportunities and our immigration and criminal justice system. These disadvantages are simply making themselves more obvious during the coronavirus outbreak.”
CORONAVIRUS PREVENTION TIPS
In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.
Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also issued an executive order requiring people to wear face coverings over their mouth and nose while inside enclosed, public spaces.
Read all of MLive’s coverage on the coronavirus at mlive.com/coronavirus.