Patch.com's Eric Kiefer reports
MONTCLAIR, NJ — The new coronavirus can infect people of all races and ethnicities. It doesn't care about your immigration status. But that doesn't mean the virus is taking an equal toll on New Jersey's communities, some say.
As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the nation, a rising tide of residents and community leaders are demanding that New Jersey officials take a hard look at how the disease is affecting minorities and immigrants.
"Our country has an incredibly poor history of health care when it comes to the treatment of minorities, especially in the black community," said Sen. Ronald Rice of the 28th District (Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Irvington, Newark, Nutley).
"If hospitals have limited funding and decide to pull resources away from sick minorities, this causes all sorts of problems," Rice said.
The coronavirus is also causing havoc in communities with large populations of immigrants, advocates charge.
The state has the third-largest share of immigrants in the entire nation, according to advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey. More than two million people – or one in every five Garden State residents – are foreign born.
Of that total, nearly 500,000 are undocumented immigrants, the group said. (Read more below)
COVID-19 AND MINORITIES: 'NO ONE LEFT BEHIND'
The probe into the effects of COVID-19 on New Jersey's minorities – including black residents – got a big shot in the arm on Wednesday when Gov. Phil Murphy signed S-2357 into law.
The legislation will require hospitals to report demographic data such as race, age, ethnicity and gender to the New Jersey Department of Health. Hospitals will also have to report demographic data for people who tried to get testing but got turned away.
Primary sponsors of the bill included Senators Ronald Rice, Nia Gill and Kristin Corrado, as well as Assembly members Benjie Wimberly, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Nancy Pinkin.
The new law is similar to a bill recently introduced by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, which would require the federal government to collect and report racial data on COVID-19 cases.
"Understanding the impact of COVID-19 by demographic group is critical to ensure equity in our response to this virus," Murphy said. "We must do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable groups in our state during this unprecedented crisis. This data will inform our efforts and allow us to make sure that no one is left behind."
The effort to track racial data has gained bipartisan support among state legislators.
Sen. Nia Gill of the 34th District (Clifton, East Orange, Montclair, Orange) said that inequalities in treatment and diagnosis can have severe impacts on minorities, who are already at a higher risk of diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
"In order to address these disparities, we must have data on who is being tested, who is being treated and what the treatment outcomes are," urged Gill, a Democratic Party member.
"Coronavirus has had a devastating impact on our state and the nation, appearing to disproportionately impact men and the African-American community," agreed Sen. Kristin Corrado, a Republican who represents the state's 40th District (Bergen, Essex, Morris and Passaic counties).
"The more demographic information we can gather from our hospitals on infections, the better we can identify, react, study and prevent new COVID-19 cases in vulnerable populations," Corrado said.
Why is the toll of the coronavirus so high in predominantly black and Latina/Latino communities? Decades of "structural racism" that existed long before the virus reared its head, according to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and its partners with the United Black Agenda.
"Black people are dying across this country from COVID-19 at strikingly disproportionate rates," the nonprofit charged earlier this month. "That outcome is caused by decades of racism reflected in disinvestment in black communities, grinding poverty, relentless hyper-segregation, redlining and substandard public housing, healthcare, and educational opportunities, police brutality, food deserts, pollution and landfills."
"As a result of these factors, black people suffer from higher rates of the underlying conditions on which COVID-19 preys: asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes and more," the nonprofit stated.
On Wednesday, the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) began releasing death percentages by race/ethnicity on its website. (See the latest totals)
According to state figures from 2010, 59 percent of the population is white, followed by 18 percent Hispanic or Latina/Latino (of any race), 13 percent black or African American, 8 percent Asian, and the remaining 2 percent include Native American and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, "any other race," and "those persons who identified two or more races."
NJ IMMIGRANTS AND THE CORONAVIRUS
Meanwhile, advocates have been tracking the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on New Jersey's immigrant population.
On Wednesday, Make the Road New Jersey released the results of an in-depth round of interviews with families across the state. Dubbed "Essential and Excluded," the full study and its methodology can be seen here.
According to Make the Road New Jersey:
"Under COVID-19, immigrant communities have experienced extreme harm. Undocumented immigrants are disproportionately likely to own small businesses and to work in the sectors that have been hardest hit by coronavirus-related closures, such as food service and construction and those where workers continue frontline work such as warehouses, janitorial and agriculture."
The impact of the coronavirus is also being felt in the state's prisons, including those that contract with ICE to house federal immigrant detainees.
"Immigrants who are detained are one of the most vulnerable populations in the country, and New Jersey is quickly becoming ground zero for COVID-19 cases among immigrant detainees," Make the Road New Jersey stated.
"Despite these vulnerabilities, immigrants without lawful federal immigration status are largely excluded from public health insurance and safety net programs, as well as government aid for workers who lose their jobs or have their work hours cut," the group charged. "This includes the federal stimulus payments, state unemployment benefits and federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance and some temporary leave and disability payments."
"We are not only living with the threat of contracting coronavirus," an anonymous survey respondent told researchers. "We are also living with the fear that if we lose our jobs, we will lose our health insurance. And because we are immigrants, we can't get public insurance. I'm worried for my safety and my family's safety."
Other key findings from the survey included:
Inequities in Access to Health Care – "Despite nearly half of respondents reporting sickness in the last month, very low rates of health insurance coverage--and the chilling effects of immigration enforcement--mean one in two people who were sick haven't seen a doctor. A staggering 75 percent of all survey respondents – and 85 percent of undocumented individuals –report having no health insurance."
Chilling Effect of Immigration Enforcement – "Among undocumented survey respondents, 64 percent report not having gone to a doctor or using local services in the past because they were worried about immigration enforcement or the impact on their status."
Income Insecurity – "The vast majority of survey respondents are worried about making rent in May. Among renters surveyed, 86 percent are worried about being able to pay rent next month."
Immigrants Unable to Pay for Basic Necessities – "Financial hardship is intense and widely felt within New Jersey's immigrant communities. Most people surveyed are worried about being able to pay bills, buy medicine or access enough food in the coming month. 91 percent were worried about being able to pay utilities or other bills. 83 percent were worried about accessing enough food for their families. 70 percent were worried about buying medicine for themselves or for their families."
Pervasive Labor Rights Violations – "Despite being available to all workers regardless of immigration status, a majority of undocumented survey respondents reported that they were not provided with paid sick days by their employer. Undocumented respondents were less likely to report that their employers were doing everything they could to keep workers safe (including safety trainings, providing masks, etc.)"
Other experts in New Jersey have also been taking a serious look at the virus' effects on the state's immigrant population.
Karen D'Alonzo, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Nursing and director of the Center for Community Health Partnerships, says that working in unprotected environments, language barriers and the fear of deportation puts immigrants at an even greater risk of getting sick.
"Many undocumented immigrants work in service industry positions with little or no job security," Karen D'Alonzo of Rutgers School of Nursing said. "These employees have either lost their jobs due to the pandemic – undocumented immigrants do not qualify for unemployment benefits – or continue to work without significant protection, exposing themselves, and by extension their families, to people who may be COVID-positive."
Immigrants are less likely to own a car to drive to work and must therefore rely on public transportation, which also increases their risk of exposure to the virus, D'Alonzo said.
Even getting tested for COVID-19 can be near-impossible for undocumented immigrants, D'Alonzo added.
"At drive-in locations, people are asked to produce a social security number or have a state-issued ID to qualify for free testing," D'Alonzo said. "Many undocumented persons lack both of these official forms of identification."
Ironically, many of the health care workers that are battling the disease on the frontlines of the pandemic are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, D'Alonzo stated.
"Many of these young health care workers are the children of mixed-status families, where one or more of their family members are undocumented," the Rutgers professor said. "These 'dreamers' could lose their work permits if the U.S. Supreme Court ends this program that protects them from deportation."
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