Farmworkers harvest vegetables near Salinas, California. Photo by Chris Stone

By Breny O. Aceituno

We are six months into this pandemic and the health of communities of essential workers is at stake. By now, it is not hard to correlate the increasing number of COVID-19 cases to the inequity embroidered on the fabric of American society.

A case in point is California. Although regularly considered progressive, California is one of the states with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

The reason behind California’s high numbers is complicated; and of course, our population size is a factor. But one thing is clear: the lack of policy protections for communities of essential workers hinders our ability to regulate the COVID-19 infection rate.

In California, these “essential communities” are neighborhoods with low-income but essential workers who bring us food, distribute other essential goods, and support crucial services the rest of us need to live. California’s essential communities are often made up of people of color and include undocumented residents. Most significantly, California’s essential communities, like farmworkers, are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because of their immigration status, color, and class.

California is the largest food producer in the United States, responsible for over $50 billion in fruit, vegetables, meats and other necessities annually. To satisfy our country’s nutritional needs, one would think that we would ensure protective policies for those who turn the wheels of the food industry. Yet, farmworkers are the least protected essential workers in California.

They lack job security, are exposed to toxic pesticides regularly, and at least two-thirds are undocumented, constantly threatened if they try to exercise their rights granted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Wage and Labor Division. Now that we are dealing with a pandemic, the risk they undergo has more than doubled. To date, farming regions, like Imperial County and the Central Valley have the highest infection rates in the state.

These high rates are not because of farmworkers’ negligence. Farmworkers want to wear protective gear, but are too afraid of repercussions if they speak out over scarcity. Many also want to keep their families safe from infection, but their low wages cannot support socially distanced living. Farmworkers are prone to respiratory diseases — an occupational hazard that leaves them with a life expectancy of 49 years. As COVID-19 spreads, farmworkers are closer to death now more than ever before.

This pandemic makes us realize that the balance between people and markets is out-of-kilter in California. We cannot call ourselves progressive while neglecting the backbone of the nation’s food industry. New policies like the California Farmworker Relief Package are meaningless to the majority of agricultural workers because they are undocumented.

What we need is a systemic change that starts with people. And this change also needs to acknowledge that while our society has prioritized the economy over people, it has also hurt people through discrimination along race and ethnic lines.

During times of plague, people often look for scapegoats. Examples include the persecution of Jews during the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages and the stigmatization of Spain and its people because of the misnomer “Spanish Flu” a century ago. It is a dark history that should not repeat. Yet social media posts are rampant with the claim that “illegals” are the cause of high COVID-19 infection rates in California.

If we want to be the kind of progressive state that leads America, we can no longer shout to raise the minimum wage to $15 while turning a blind eye to our essential farmworkers. We need to organize and demand that our state prioritize equitable policies for all people who support our economy and public health regardless of documents, color, or class.

For essential communities, this means finally gaining access to resources that transform their neighborhoods, improve health care, and combat all discriminatory practices that keep them in poverty.

Breny O. Aceituno is the prevention specialist for Partnerships 4 Success, a project in San Diego’s South Bay that brings together representatives from government, public health, education, social services and community members to address health inequities among the Latinx population.

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