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Project April 28, 2021

COVID-19, Farmworkers and the Erosion of Public Health

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Ninety years ago, John Steinbeck wrote, “The migrants are needed, and they are hated.” The same might be said today of the immigrant workforce on farms and in food-processing plants in California’s San Joaquin Valley, who feed America while suffering high rates of COVID-19. In December, there were zero beds left in intensive care units in the region, and test positivity rates hovered around a quarter in parts of Fresno, Madera and Tulare where essential workers live in small, crowded homes.

Public health scholars have observed how infectious diseases take a heavier toll on the laboring class since the founding of the discipline. But this disparity hasn’t faded because unlike infectious disease science, public health depends on political will. For the past fifty years, the US public health system has struggled in a socio-political environment that is hostile to regulation, and that favors corporate interests. This is evident in the handling of the pandemic in the San Joaquin Valley. With a temporary infusion of federal and state funding, grassroots groups are trying to solve inequities through testing and contact-tracing, as well as by demanding data on occupational COVID rates, and by advocating for labor protection and social services. They’re hoping that under President Joe Biden, their efforts translate into policies that improve welfare for decades to come—much as the New Deal did after the Great Depression. But in the San Joaquin Valley, where anti-socialism billboards line highways, no one is overly optimistic.

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