For thousands of low-income Sonoma County residents, pre-pandemic normality just meant less misery

New COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are down and pandemic restrictions are slowly being lifted.

People are once again hoping for a return to “normal” life, where they can gather freely, work in offices, enter restaurants without masks and shake hands rather than bump elbows.

But for thousands of low-income Sonoma County residents — many of whom are Latinos and many of whom are undocumented immigrants — a return to normalcy will mean something different.

There won’t necessarily be more joy, just less misery.

Volumes of public health statistics continue to show that COVID-19 infections are hitting hardest in places that reflect the county’s long history of economic, ethical and racial disparities.

Health advocates and county health officials say these “pre-existing” inequalities will not disappear once public health restrictions are lifted.

“Normal has never been good for our undocumented residents, our low-wage workers, and so we don’t want to go back to normal,” said Oscar Chavez, deputy director of the Sonoma County Department of Social Services.

Chavez said the post-pandemic challenge will be to “change the look of normal” and make the recovery fairer.

“What we know about this pandemic and any disaster is that it is always our most vulnerable who are hit the hardest – our disabled, our elderly, our undocumented, our communities of color,” a- he declared. “And they are also the last to recover.”

Such is the case with people like Lizet Castañeda, a wine industry worker from Cloverdale who will reclaim the margins of our local economy long after the pandemic is over as she struggles to find enough work to pay the rent and buy groceries.

For her and many other low-wage workers, the frustration of wearing a face mask and not being able to get together with friends is the least of her worries.

Although most Sonoma County residents have felt some form of psychological and emotional strain over the past two years, those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, have been seriously ill, have been hospitalized or have suffered extreme financial hardship experienced a markedly different pandemic reality.

Citing observations made by USC ethnic studies professor Manuel Pastor during a visit to Sonoma County in November, Chavez said COVID-19 was the illness that revealed disease in our society.

“We just weren’t prepared,” Chavez said. “Whatever idea of ​​a safety net we thought we had, COVID has proven us wrong. And so, we need to reimagine what a safety net looks like, a responsive safety net, for our vulnerable populations.

layers of misery

During the omicron-fueled winter surge, the virus swept through Lizet Castañeda’s small two-bedroom apartment in Cloverdale, infecting her, her husband and adult son. The 52-year-old works at a local winery, washing glasses in the tasting room.

Castañeda, who was fully vaccinated last year, said she didn’t know where she contracted the virus, but one day in mid-January she started feeling body aches. Her husband had a fever, she said. All tested positive.

Castañeda said that, like many other immigrants, she does not have paid sick leave and cannot afford time off.

Her biggest worry, she said, is her ability to pay rent in her motel-like apartment, which is expected to drop from $1,348 to $1,420 a month in March. She said if the rent is not paid five days after the due date, she is charged $50 per day.

“There are people working who are infected but still working because they have to keep working,” she said in Spanish. “I’m afraid of getting sick again.”

Like many other low-income immigrants in Cloverdale, Castañeda received help through the pandemic from La Familia Sana, a grassroots nonprofit that promotes the health and well-being of disadvantaged Latino and Indigenous communities. .

Mayra Arreguin, a La Famila Sana organizer, spends much of her days scouting modest apartment complexes in Cloverdale, looking for families who are short on food or struggling with paying rent and utility bills. public. She connects them to pandemic-related financial aid and food bank donations.

She said the funds available are simply insufficient to meet widespread needs, especially among seasonal agricultural workers.

“There are workers who can only get a few hours here and there,” she said in Spanish. “In years past, workers were subject to regular work reduction, eight hours a day. Now there is no more work. Farm workers are suffering a lot right now.

Javi Cabrera-Rosales, project director of the CURA project, which provides pandemic assistance to Latino, Indigenous and low-income communities, said Sonoma County residents who “live on the margins” have no not the same access to resources that most other people have.

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