Due to poor working conditions, poor access to health care, government inaction, and a host of other adverse issues, California farm workers are at much higher risk of contracting the coronavirus than the rest of the population.
A July report from the California Institute for Rural Studies warned that farm workers were "more than three times more likely to be infected with the virus than those employed in the county's non-agricultural industries" in Monterey County alone.
According to the study, COVID-19 among farm workers in the county was 1,569 per 100,000 on June 30, while the rate among non-farm workers was only 471 per 100,000.
CIRS founder Don Villarejo said at the time that "a lack of transparency" where most counties do not track the disease by occupation is contributing to its spread.
In Imperial County, home to hundreds of thousands of acres of harvested farmland, the per capita case rate is the highest in the state at 5,930 cases per 100,000 people, according to CDC data.
Proponents say government efforts to educate farm workers about the spread of the disease – including Governor Gavin Newsom's plan to spend $ 52 million in the area – have failed. Esther Bejarano of the Comite Civico del Valle (Citizens Committee of the Valley) told Inside Climate News: "It makes no sense to spend more money on what doesn't work. We need structural change. We need systemic support."
Carlos Marentes, founder of the Border Agricultural Workers Project, also criticized the state's response to the crisis. "We are in a major health crisis and there is no one with the moral authority within the government to define a clear strategy that makes sense," he told Politico. “Recommendations are made, but no mandates. Most affected are people in poverty, farm workers and rural areas. "
And while the state's efforts to combat the pandemic among farm workers may be flawed, many say the Trump administration has made no effort at all, pointing out that it has repeatedly declined to impose mandatory safety requirements on farm workplaces. It has also failed to provide funding to help farmers obtain personal protective equipment for their workers, although it has done so for other key workers such as nurses and police officers.
After months of inquiries from lawyers, the CDC finally issued safety recommendations to farm workers in June, but the Department of Labor refused to make them binding, while the Labor Protection Agency alleged in court in August it was not empowered to do so.
Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama, said he feared most voters are completely isolated from the people who grow and harvest their food, most of whom are Latinos.
"I fear we are nearing the point where the majority of people who get new coronavirus cases and the majority of deaths are from the Hispanic and black communities," he told Politico. "It is unacceptable to decide who we want to save and who not. When Trump says much of the country is fine, he is really saying that not so many whites are dying."
Even at the local level, efforts to slow the pandemic's growth have been foiled. As coronavirus cases began to surge in the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Center this summer, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs proposed requiring citizens to wear masks.
"Stay on your track," was the reply from Shellie Lima, director of the district's emergency services. "I am against the proposed Mask Ordinance for Stockton … why should our elected officials feel they have the medical understanding?"
"Maybe they don't think it's serious, maybe they don't prioritize the people who are most likely to be affected, or maybe it's just a lack of understanding of the science," Tubbs told the Los Angeles Times. "We keep treating it in such a way that it was unavoidable. It was."
In Monterey County's Salinas Valley, known as the "Salad Bowl of the World," workers are at an even rental risk due to the raging forest fires.
Dr. Caroline Kennedy, medical director of the Clinic Services Bureau at the Monterey County Health Department, says workers report that even weeks after being diagnosed with the virus, they are unable to take deep breaths or do heavy labor because of the smoke.
"They often return to very stressful life situations and everyone in the family is infected," she told NPR on Monday.
But, says Kennedy, choosing between health and money is a difficult task in this largely impoverished community. "Do you stay home if the air quality doesn't make you feel good or do you just go back to work?"
RELATED: Farm workers are still in the fields as the pandemic spreads
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