“He’s never coming back,” Irlanda Ruiz of Charlotte remembers telling her 8-year-old niece. The girl’s father, Ruiz’s brother-in-law from Puerto Rico, was an essential worker who had contracted COVID-19 on the job. He died at age 41, and Ruiz struggled to tell his children why.
Manolo Betancur, owner of Manolo’s Bakery, has not only fought off an infection of the deadly virus himself but has seen how it’s also affected his business, and as with so many others in Charlotte and across the country, help came slow.
Betancur had to apply for economic relief three times at two different banks. Then when his employees started getting sick from the coronavirus, they didn’t tell their boss. He understood why: With little help coming from local, state and federal government, his employees couldn’t afford to lose work.
These were just two of several stories shared at a virtual press conference held on Wednesday by Action NC and Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) at which the grassroots community organizations released findings from a COVID-19 community impact survey conducted in the fall of 2020 that shares stories from minority and immigrant communities most impacted by the pandemic.
“It’s affected our community hard,” said Héctor Vaca, NC Immigrant Justice Director for Action NC. “Many people are going without food and housing, [or] losing their jobs. Many of us have lost loved ones.”
Disproportionate COVID-19 impacts on minorities
Action NC and CPD wrote the report to show how North Carolina’s minorities — specifically Latinx, Black and immigrant communities — have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19, and here in Mecklenburg County, the numbers bear that out.
According to the most recent data, released by Mecklenburg County Public Health on Friday, nearly three in four of the county’s deaths that didn’t occur in long-term-care facilities were non-white victims, with 40% being non-Hispanic Black.
These disparities are driven by higher rates of underlying chronic conditions in black and brown communities, which increase risks of severe complications due to COVID-19 infection, according to MCPH.
At a press conference on Jan. 29, Mecklenburg County Public Health (MCPH) director Gibbie Harris said the county is working with “trusted leaders” in minority communities to share factual information about COVID-19 impacts and vaccine availability, while also setting up clinics to get folks living in those communities vaccinated as they become qualified to do so.
According to MCPH, 768 vaccination doses were administered between Jan. 22-25 at clinics located at C.W. Williams Community Health Center on Wilkinson Boulevard in west Charlotte; Gaffney Health Services on Albermarle Road in east Charlotte; Hoskins Avenue Baptist Church in northwest Charlotte; and Inlivian senior centers located in Autumn Village, Edwin Towers and Parktowne Terrace. Another clinic serving the refugee community is scheduled for the first weekend in February.
“A number of efforts are happening at both hospital systems as well as at the health department to make sure that we’re offering clinics in those specific communities,” Harris said during Friday’s press conference. “We’ll continue to focus on that, that’s also a significant focus at the state level, so we’re all working on it together at this time.”
According to the most recent data available on the North Carolina Department Health and Human Services COVID-19 dashboard, as of the week of Jan. 23, the Latinx community made up 23% of the state’s COVID-19 cases, despite making up less than 10% of the North Carolina population. Given the lack of comprehensive demographic data — the state is missing racial demographic data on 19% of its COVID-19 cases and ethnicity data for nearly 37% of its COVID-19 cases — these disparities could be even higher than official tallies.
The economic picture
The in-depth survey of over 100 Latinx and Black community members from around the state and primarily Charlotte doesn’t just dive into the health-related impacts of the pandemic, but others aspects of how COVID-19 has affected these beleaguered communities, Vaca said.
The picture of widespread financial instability and hardship among minority residents fueled the organizations’ demands that federal, state, and local elected officials step up their efforts to provide relief for the afflicted populations.
Action NC’s Reyna Gonzales, who conducted the surveys, shared stories of families standing in line for hours to get food. Another family could not afford internet service, so they had to get a ride from neighbors to go to a house where they could get online to allow their children to attend school.
Betancur related his harrowing experience contracting COVID-19. He was sick for three days with severe chest pains and could barely breathe at times. As he got over the worst of the symptoms, he counted his blessings that he had a good team in place to run his business while he was incapacitated. He wonders what will happen to mom-and-pop businesses that don’t have the backup he had.
“We have to face this new reality that too many small businesses are closing,” Betancur said. “The community isn’t getting help. It’s a broken system. We need to raise our voices and let everybody know that.”
Maggie Corser, a senior research analyst with CPD, shared data obtained through the survey at Wednesday’s virtual conference. Of the 100 Black, Latinx and immigrant people surveyed, one in four were out of work. Only 15% received unemployment benefits in January, and only 45% had qualified for stimulus payments. Seventeen percent had lost a loved one in 2020.
For undocumented immigrants, the picture was even bleaker. Forty-four percent of them had lost work, Corser said, and undocumented families are currently completely excluded from relief. For this population, high rates of physical and mental illness intersect with low rates of health insurance coverage, to overwhelming results.
To counterbalance this dire situation, Action NC and CPD recommended local policy changes, including eliminating citizenship or documentation requirements for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, expanding the distribution of personal protection equipment in minority communities, strengthening workplace protections in high-risk industries like construction and meat-packing plants and adding to foreclosures and utility cut-offs to the existing eviction moratorium.
On the federal level, Action NC board member Silvia Sanchez recommended asking congress members to reduce funding for ICE and the border patrol, with CPD’s Natalia Renta referencing how conditions in immigration detention centers have worsened in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vaca was particularly emphatic about diminishing ICE’s impact on immigrant communities.
“As ICE continues to round up people in our community, the community stays in crisis,” Vaca said. “This needs to end now.”
The survey underlies the importance of including immigrants, regardless of their status, in all COVID-19 relief measures, Renta offered.
“We need a pathway to citizenship for everyone,” she said. “There are 5 million undocumented essential workers [in the U.S.] that are key to the country’s recovery.”
Ryan Pitkin contributed reporting to this story.
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