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Pandemic Highlights Public Health’s Neglect of NC Latinx Community

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Wednesday, September 30, 2020   

RALEIGH, N.C. -- COVID-19 cases have spiked among the state's Latinx community, yet most of these residents can't access basic health services.

Advocates say the pandemic has highlighted how the country's public health system has neglected undocumented residents. While Hispanics make up around 9% of North Carolina's population, as of mid-June, they accounted for 44% of the state's COVID-19 cases, according to state data. Many of the state's immigrants work in food processing, construction, deliveries or cleaning services and can't afford to stay home if they feel sick.

Juvencio Rocha-Peralta, executive director of the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, said this population faces unique barriers.

"These communities that we're talking about, they're undocumented individuals, they don't qualify for any public services," he said. "So what we did was provide some emergency funding for rent, electric and other needs that they need at home."

Since March, Rocha-Peralta's organization has been leading a COVID-19 task force made up of health providers, community partners and community members that meet weekly to identify how they can support the Latinx community during the pandemic. He said foundations such as the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and others have provided cash to help residents pay for doctor visits, medical bills and prescription medications.

Rocha-Peralta said many Latinx residents are wary of getting tested for COVID-19 due to fear of deportation. Worsening matters is the Trump administration's public-charge rule, which went into effect early this year. He said local public-health departments could play a critical role in gaining the trust of the undocumented community.

"Health departments and other public agencies, they need to establish some advisory councils and advisory boards to advise those institutions about this population," he said. "Communities-based organizations place a significant role working with marginalized communities."

The emergency aid has been a temporary solution, but Rocha-Peralta noted that the crisis has highlighted the need for a new approach to public health in marginalized communities. One report found North Carolina ranks 40th in the nation in spending on public health, and in 2019, North Carolina was one of only eight states where public health funding decreased.

"We've been working in this community for 19 years," he said, "but when the pandemic hit us, there was a reason to change things around and also, not to react, but to come up with a plan to address the needs of these communities."

He also pointed to the need for mental health resources in the immigrant community. Many families have experienced high levels of stress related to poverty and trauma, worsened during the pandemic.

North Carolina public health funding data is online at tfah.org.


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