MIAMI — With decades of effort and dedication, Arturo Morales built a life for himself in the United States. In a matter of days, the coronavirus nearly destroyed it all.
His wife, Besabed Román, died on April 1 of Covid-19. Originally from Mexico, Mr. Morales, 52, has no job and no savings. Tuberculosis, which he suffered from as a young man, left him with only one lung, leaving him particularly vulnerable to the disease. His sole hope is that he won’t become infected as his wife did.
When I spoke to him recently, Mr. Morales, who lives in Chicago, described how his wife became sick. Ms. Román, who had a leg amputated because of diabetes complications, went to a local medical clinic on March 20 for a diabetes checkup. “There, a man was screaming that he had coronavirus,” Mr. Morales told me. “She began to feel ill, like she was short of breath. … The next day, she was really struggling to breathe … and we took her to the hospital, but they didn’t let us in.”
That was the last time Mr. Morales saw his wife. “We said goodbye over the phone,” he said, crying. “They put her on speaker so that she could listen to us.”
The Morales family tragedy — Ms. Román is also survived by the couple’s four daughters and one son — is obviously not unique. But Latinos are disproportionately suffering from the economic and health effects of Covid-19. The pandemic has highlighted the serious health issues that prevail in America’s Latino community — including diabetes, hypertension and obesity — as well as the social inequalities that continue to weigh on Latinos.
The disparity in the extent of the damage caused by the virus is a matter of life and death for Latinos. And yet the Trump administration hasn’t appointed a Spanish-speaking official specifically to address the Latino community during the crisis, nor has it created a Spanish-language website about the virus.
The only thing the government has done for the community is to translate the White House’s guidelines for preventing mass contagion into Spanish — though it did so several days after the release of the English version. Mr. Trump has treated the more than 37 million Spanish speakers in the country as if they don’t exist. Latinos don’t have anyone in the White House, like Dr. Deborah Birx or Dr. Anthony Fauci, to tell them what’s going on in their own language. They are the forgotten. That’s why so many Latinos have been forced to rely on Spanish-language media for their survival.
The situation in New York City is illustrative. There, Latinos represent 34 percent of Covid-19 deaths, according to data released early last month, even though they account for only 29 percent of the city’s population. No other ethnic group has suffered a higher percentage of fatalities.
Latinos have higher contagion risk factors than other groups. Many of them work in sectors that have been considered “essential” during the crisis, including the meat-processing industry, that leave them prone to infection. Latinos make up roughly 23 percent of the agricultural and fishing work force. They put food on our tables.
Yet they have very few protections. In California, the state that produces the most food in the nation, nearly 14 percent of Latinos don’t have health insurance, as is the case for 28 percent of Hispanics and Latinos in the Bronx and 71 percent in Miami. Health insurance is virtually nonexistent among undocumented immigrants in the country.
This is particularly dangerous for a community with an active presence of chronic, and often silent, health conditions like diabetes and hypertension. According to a study from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, 71 percent of Hispanic women and Latinas and 80 percent of Hispanic and Latino men are likely to have at least one cardiovascular disease. And nearly four in 10 Hispanics and Latinos with diabetes were unaware they had it.
The coronavirus pandemic has created a perfect storm for Latino communities. In addition to being more vulnerable to the coronavirus — due to the prevalence of pre-existing medical conditions and relative lack of health insurance — Latinos in the millions now find themselves without jobs or financial resources. Roughly one in three Latino families — 35 percent — have experienced a job loss in the household, according to a Latino Decisions-SOMOS survey.
Recovering from this double crisis won’t be easy — particularly if Latinos don’t receive help from the federal government. The omission of the country’s approximately 10.5 million undocumented immigrants from the nation’s coronavirus aid program was an unbelievable cruelty. Many of these immigrants have children born in the United States. Immigrant farmworkers, who risk their lives every day, are considered “essential” laborers. Yet they are barred from receiving government aid because they don’t have legal documents.
Fortunately, California, which sometimes acts as an anti-Trump haven for migrants, last month announced that approximately 150,000 undocumented immigrants in the state would receive aid totaling $125 million. Each adult is entitled to $500, with a $1,000 maximum per family. “They’re our brothers and sisters. They’re the people who are helping mom and dad,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told me. “Ten percent of our work force is undocumented. Half of our children in California were born to immigrant parents. It’s a matter of great pride for us. They are essential. They are extremely important.”
This program helps the most vulnerable immigrants of all. But the truth is we’re going to need a lot more than good intentions to solve a structural problem that has put the Latino community in extreme danger, medically and economically, amid the pandemic. Aid programs like California’s can have an immediate and positive effect on the Latino community. Sadly, I don’t see similar efforts elsewhere in the country.
The next years won’t be easy. The virus has reversed the progress made in combating unemployment and poverty among Latinos. Families like Mr. Morales’s have lost almost everything.
His wife used to cook the red and green tamales that the couple sold in Chicago to pay the rent and buy food. But after her sudden death, Mr. Morales has been left without a partner and without income.
“Right now, my daughters and many people have supported us,” he told me before saying goodbye, as he breathed with the help of an oxygen tank and wiped away tears. “They have brought us food and a little money too.” Locked in his house, Mr. Morales can only hope the virus spares his life.