It’s the raucous soundtrack to barrio life that’s wonderful to hear during normal times. Nowadays, the scene reminds me of the orchestra on the Titanic.
“It’s sadness,” the newly elected Santa Ana mayor, Vicente Sarmiento, told me. “We’re killing our own.”
The coronavirus has come through Southern California with such force that we’re now a case study of extremes. We were hailed worldwide for flattening the first coronavirus wave. Some even theorized—and too many wanted to believe—that millions of us were already immune to COVID-19. Now we’re a cautionary tale for what happens when municipalities lift restrictions too soon and not enough people heed the Anthony Faucis of the world.
As I write, the seven-day average for new cases in the five counties that make up the Los Angeles metro area—L.A., Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Orange—is 15,583. That’s 60 percent of California’s total seven-day average, even though those counties are home to just 47 percent of the state’s population. On the New York Times’ coronavirus map, Southern California’s crimson-red hue, highlighting our disaster, is as foreboding as a drought map.
How Southern California became the American epicenter of the disease will be debated for years to come; income disparities and medical inequities are top issues. But one of the more obvious reasons is also one of the least highlighted: The coronavirus is as bad as it is here because it’s tailor-made to target those who work blue-collar jobs that are impossible to carry out at home, belong to deep social networks, and live in multigenerational households. Sounds like the Latino community, right? In normal times, we hold these attributes dear, but they are now our Achilles’ heel.
“Let’s put it like this: It would be a surge for any [group] with these characteristics,” says David Hayes-Bautista, the director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture. “It just so happens that Latinos occupy that space” in Southern California.
Hayes-Bautista spent nearly all of 2020 publishing policy papers on the pandemic. The title of his next one is the most sobering yet: “COVID-19 Punishes Latinos for Hard Work and Strong Families.”
Read: How a well-meaning health policy created California’s coronavirus nightmare
Latinos account for about 39 percent of California’s population, but 55 percent of its coronavirus cases and nearly half of its coronavirus deaths. And the list of the hardest-hit areas is a roster of Southern California’s most famous Latino enclaves: Pacoima (the hometown of new U.S. Senator Alex Padilla), Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park.
In Los Angeles County, the Department of Health estimates that daily COVID-19 deaths among Latinos went from about 3.5 per 100,000 people in early November to 28 per 100,000 in January—an increase of almost 800 percent. In Ventura County, two zip codes in the city of Oxnard account for around 30 percent of all COVID-19 cases—and these spots just so happen to correspond with where farmworkers live and pick. In Orange County, Latinos make up 34 percent of the population but 44 percent of all cases and about 39 percent of deaths. This disparity is mostly because of Santa Ana and my Latino-majority hometown of Anaheim, which represents nearly 16 percent of coronavirus cases in the county and nearly 20 percent of deaths.