With the backdrop of farmworkers in the fields, Genoveva Islas, Director of  ‘Cultiva la Salud’, recently participated in a teleconference with Ethnic Media Services.

As America now leads in cases of COVID-19, the most vulnerable communities of the United states continue to face its threat due to the lack of support, a history of injustice and vulnerability.

A major at-risk work force are farmworkers who obviously can’t work from home. The nation’s food supply depends on farmworkers, who are in harms way without benefit of protection or the ability to easily socially distance while working. They often must carpool into the fields and return home to oftentimes cramped living conditions.

There are reports that at some farm locations, protective wear — including gloves and masks — haven’t been  provided to them.

They’re responsible for picking, planting and packing our produce.

While farmworkers are considered “essential” to our country, their work and health is undervalued with the vast majority working for minimum wage, no benefits, long hours and in hazardous conditions.

Most farmworkers are undocumented Mexican immigrants and guestworkers with temporary visas. There is no stimulus money to assist them.

California’s Central Valley plays a tremendous role in relation to the food system, producing 25% of all the table foods for America despite making up roughly 1% of the agricultural farmlands of the United States.

“Anything that would impair our ability to provide that could be catastrophic for not only California but potentially our nation,” warns Genoveva Islas, director of the Fresno-based Public Health Advocacy Organization, “Cultiva la Salud.”

“When we talk about the experience of farmworkers, there is a huge inequity in terms of their resources and supports,” Islas said.

While farmworkers are considered “essential workers” during the pandemic, Islas calls for “essential protections” for the farm working community.

“We have for far too long not had fair and equal pay, we do not have retirement, we do not have access to insurance,” said Islas. “For those communities that were struggling before COVID and suffering disadvantages, that disadvantage is even more magnified now.”

Also, with high rates of diabetes, obesity and asthma due to the area’s poor air, the San Joaquin and Central Valley populations as a whole face higher risks and are especially vulnerable to becoming ill from a COVID-19 infection. In addition, a shortage of resources puts the rural community at a great strain in the event of a large outbreak.

Islas points out there has been a consistent shortage of health care providers in the Central Valley even before the COVID-19 crisis emerged.

“Our rural communities would be really challenged to respond to caring for individuals who become sick,” she noted.

Native American Communities At Risk

Native American Indians and Alaskan Natives are incredibly vulnerable to a pandemic like COIVD-19, given the disproportionately large number of individuals affected by pre-existing high-risk health conditions such as respiratory and heart conditions and diabetes.

As an extremely vulnerable population, the Native community has long suffered from pandemics at a vastly disproportionate rate.

“We’re dying from diabetes at three times the national average, we die from the seasonal flu at four times the national average,” said Virginia Hedrick a member of the Yurok Tribe and Executive Director of the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health.

“Data from the 1918 pandemic, the Spanish Flu…there wasn’t a lot of data collected there scientifically on race data, but early reports at that time showed that American Indians during that pandemic died at a rate as high as four times higher than the average American,” she said.

“California is home to the largest number of tribes in any state, with the exception of Alaska and Alaska Native Corporations, and more than 90% of Californian and Alaskan natives live in our urban areas and are often overlooked and not reached by general public messaging.”

Because of the long history of injustice suffered by native communities, cultural awareness, competency and specific messaging is needed to effectively outreach to urban and native communities.

Los Angeles has the largest urban Native American Indian population in the country.

“There is a historical distrust among American Indians to government systems, particularly when it comes to health care — [it’s] the same Health Care systems that sterilized American Indian women without consent within the last 40 years here in the United States,” Hedrick said.

“So, when we have the same government entities issuing shelter-in-place [directives], it can be difficult for these communities to trust that.”

Currently organizations, including the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, and other statewide tribally focused organizations are providing information to relay just how vulnerable the native community is to infectious disease and why it’s important to follow guidelines.