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Guest Commentary

Town Hall | Pandemic exposing public-health inequities right here at home

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Gilbert Rosas

Gilberto Rosas

The current pandemic brings flesh to the stark inequalities in health care in our communities. Amid the staggering death tolls, with more than a quarter of a million people having now died from the virus in the United States, Black and Native Americans have suffered the greatest loss of life.

Black, Indigenous and Latinos all have a COVID-19 death rate of triple or more White Americans.

Of course, we all know to practice the protocols. We practice social distance; we wear masks; we wash our hands frequently. But the privilege here cannot go unstated: essential workers, those working on the front lines of certain kinds of life-sustaining operations driving buses, detasseling corn, processing meat or laboring in some other vital segment of the current infrastructure of our way of life cannot.

They cannot work behind the safety of a glowing screen or a plastic shield. They cannot escape the coughs, wheezes and droplets in the air that may bear infection.

Indeed, to rehearse more grim statistics, another recent analysis from the Centers for Disease Control holds that U.S. Latinos and Blacks, already burdened with poverty rates more than twice that of whites, are three times as likely to become infected with SARS-CoV-2 than whites. An additional complication are the so-called cryptic infections, a term for those who bear the virus, but show no symptoms, and unknowingly spread the virus.

Testing for the virus among such conditions is proving vital. Community members must learn if they have the disease. Such knowledge helps mitigate the spread of the virus. It pushes them to undertake quarantine and to receive care. The National Institutes of Health holds that widespread testing will help save lives and that testing in vulnerable communities must be a priority.

Failure of national leadership

The Labor Health Equity, Action Project (LHEAP) is a team of interdisciplinary researchers from across the University of Illinois who have come together at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, to study and contribute to Public Health in a small way.

Its core members include Professors Jessica Brinkworth, Korinta Maldonado, Ellen Moodie, from the Department of Anthropology, and Rachel Whitaker, from the Department of Microbiology, as well as me, in the Departments of Anthropology and Latina/o Studies.

Our group also includes community researchers Sofia Bolaños Robinette, Paty Hyberto Kamenga, Diana Mendoza and Sylvia Mateo, project manager Susan Thomas and Grace Shaw.

We are not public health workers or service providers. We are not nurses, nor doctors. We are committed researchers, pursuing a dynamic research agenda, looking at the complex intersections of the structural, socio-cultural and immunity factors involved in transmission of COVID, and its complex effects among essential laborers in agriculture and adjacent industries in southern Illinois.

We know that the vulnerable communities like those that we work with have been systematically denied the resources for testing and related kinds of health care. We know they speak different languages and must live in tight quarters, often multigenerational households. We know they work long hours. We know they get sick and we know they are deprived of quality health care.

We know all this underscores the failure of national leadership to combat this debilitating virus.

We should expect better

To this end, and as part of our commitment to these communities, LHEAP in collaboration with the Champaign Urbana Public Health District has coordinated free pop-up COVID testing events in Rantoul. We helped provide a handful of tests at our first event. Now, we are averaging close to 50 for each four-hour testing.

We draw on a network of committed community partners, volunteer physicians, students and other volunteers. We appreciate the generous support of CUPHD, the village of Rantoul, the Institute for Genomic Biology, the Vice Chancellor for Research, the Humanities Institute and the UI’s Colleges of Agriculture and Consumer Economics.

We are increasingly asked to coordinate more testing, to more areas, for more people. We know with the grey cold months before us, the public health inequities that the pandemic exposes will worsen.

And we know we should expect better. We must.

Gilberto Rosas is an associate professor of anthropology and Latin studies at the University of Illinois.