The COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin has not hit all segments of the population equally. People of color have disproportionately fallen ill to this potentially fatal disease. The Black population in our state has suffered greatly with significant levels of infection and fatal outcomes. Less well known has been the impact on the Latinx residents of Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, as of June 24, Latinx individuals made up 32% of the cases of COVID-19 and 11% of the deaths, while constituting only 7% of the state’s population.
Recent comments of Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Patricia Rogensack and Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos are especially deplorable. Rogensack stated that an outbreak of the virus in Brown County was the result of workers in meatpacking and not “regular folks.” Later, Vos blamed high numbers of cases in Racine County on “immigrant culture.” In making these comments, two of the highest public officials in Wisconsin demeaned the Latinx and immigrant community by suggesting that they were a cause of the spread of the virus, as opposed to its victims.
The reasons why Latinx and immigrants suffer disproportionately from COVID-19 relates to poverty and marginalization of members of this community. Latinx people fill many low-paying essential jobs in the Wisconsin economy with no health insurance. They are less likely to have jobs where they can work from home and safely isolate, and thus, have been going out to jobs where they face exposure to the virus. Prominent among those jobs is the meatpacking industry where the Latinx community represents a high percentage of the workforce. Operators of those plants showed themselves incapable of protecting the safety of their workers as hundreds of workers ended up testing positive for COVID-19.
The pandemic also lays bare the real barriers in access to healthcare for the Latinx community. According to Wisconsin DHS, Latinx individuals have the highest uninsured rates of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Latinx health is often shaped by factors such as language and cultural barriers, lack of access to preventive care, and the lack of health insurance.
Not only has the virus had a disproportionate health impact on the Latinx population, that community has also suffered more from the related economic downturn. Latinx unemployment is currently higher than any other group nationwide. While the federal government has taken certain steps to ameliorate the economic impact of the current recession, the federal government’s response has intentionally shortchanged the Latinx community who are not US citizens.
The federal government response has excluded not only undocumented immigrants, but also immigrants with legal status in the country who do not have social security numbers from receiving the $1,200 per adult CARES Act subsidy payments. Not only did the federal government exclude these immigrants from receiving the subsidy, the government also excluded their family members including U.S. citizen spouses and US citizen children.
This impacts tens of thousands of persons living in Wisconsin. Nearly 56,000 U.S. citizens in Wisconsin live with at least one family member who is undocumented. 75,000 undocumented immigrants comprised 24% of the immigrant population, and 1% of the total state population in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to gather and deport immigrants. Nationwide, more than 23,000 persons are currently held in immigration detention prior to deportation and there have been almost 2,500 detainees who have contracted COVID-19.
Clearly, urgent measures are needed to address the disparate impact of COVID-19 on the Latinx communities of Wisconsin, particularly the large portion of that community who are immigrants. The U.S. Senate should immediately vote on the HEROES Act passed by the House which makes available subsidy payments to all households, and not just those households in which two adults have social security numbers.
Access to COVID-19 testing and treatment must be made freely available to everyone, regardless of immigration status. There should be enhanced outreach and health communication to Latinx communities to make sure they are aware of steps to prevent the spread of the disease and available resources to help them.