Together, Reaching Out
By AnaMaria bech
Click aqui para español- > Unidos por la comunidad Hispana
Almost 15 years ago, Hurricane Katrina impacted our region, and on the road to recovery, the demographics of the region changed with a significant influx of Latino workers who helped rebuild the city and stayed. Once again, Louisiana has been heavily impacted by an emergency in the form of a novel virus, the COVID-19 pandemic. As is expected with emergencies, many needs arise, and the government, local organizations, and media must work together to ensure there is an accurate reach of information and resources to everyone in the community, especially the most vulnerable groups.
People from the southeast Louisiana region are no strangers to the concept of uniting during times of crisis. With long-term training in preparedness for hurricane emergencies, leaders in the region have been able to do a remarkable job by adapting emergency practices to include the necessary resources to firmly react to an unexpected public health emergency.
During the COVID-19 emergency, disparity issues were quickly identified in the way the virus was affecting minority groups. African American residents were experiencing higher death rates than other racial groups in Louisiana and other parts of the nation. This has been in part due to long-term inequalities that have prevented adequate health care access to minorities, making these groups vulnerable to the effects of the virus. Economic inequalities also create multiple issues. Many minority group individuals are deemed essential workers and are required to show up at work, which puts them in the front lines with higher chances of contracting the virus.
Soon after the disparities in the African American community were identified, doctors began to raise concerns about similar patterns within the Hispanic community and the high rate of infection. As cases grew, city officials took notice. Helena Moreno, president of New Orleans City Council, the only elected official in the state of Louisiana of Hispanic heritage, made it her personal mission to spearhead an outreach initiative through the creation of a Hispanic Outreach Task Force that focuses on identifying major obstacles in getting resources to the Spanish-speaking community and creating action items to quickly find solutions for the most pressing issues. Moreno thought it was important to expand this reach at a regional level and made sure representatives from the neighboring Jefferson Parish were included in this task force. She identified key individuals and Hispanic leaders in health, business, advocacy, nonprofits, and media, who could help identify areas in need. After the first couple of meetings and identified issues, an unprecedented press conference was held with the participation of some of the members of the task force and the inclusion of Spanish language during the broadcast. Doctor Jennifer Avegno, the director of the city of New Orleans Health Department shared the concerning data of positive cases within the Latino community in New Orleans. “The positivity rate for Latinos who are getting tested at our testing sites is five times more of that of non-Latinos in our region” adding that “it creates a community-wide problem and a cause of great concern,” Avegno said.
Among the reasons for Hispanic people to be infected at disproportionate amounts are that Hispanics rely on essential jobs, jobs with low rates of access to paid leave, the need for public transportation, lack of health insurance, language barriers, no emergency funds, and for undocumented workers, the lack of access to financial federal aids or unemployment benefits, for which they must continue to work. In response to these issues, leaders from New Orleans and Jefferson Parish have made it a priority to engage their Latino population and have committed to expanding their Spanish language communication through their platforms and through their partnership with Spanish bilingual media outlets and community organizations.
Prior to the pandemic, there had been efforts to inform Spanish and Vietnamese speaking individuals. During emergency preparedness, NOLA Ready has provided all information in Spanish, as well as PSA and infomercials throughout their website ready.nola.gov. These same efforts have been replicated to include critical information regarding Covid-19, including prevention tips, food distribution sites, safe reopening information by phases, testing availability, and even mask giveaways. The city of New Orleans has also created brief recaps after all press conferences in Spanish and Vietnamese that have been shared on their social media channels. The city recently announced that Spanish-speaking residents can subscribe to govdelivery to receive press releases once they have been translated into Spanish. Anamaria Villamarin-Lupin, the program manager for the Youth and Families department of the city of New Orleans, and a member of the Hispanic Outreach Task Force praised the outreach to the Hispanic community by the city. “The efforts of the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families in partnership with CBOs, faith-based organizations, community leaders, and Councilmember Moreno’s office are evidence of the collaboration. We are making sure we share these resources via our partnerships with community-based organizations,” she said.
In Jefferson Parish, President Cynthia Lee Sheng had created an intercultural coordinator position to guarantee that all parish residents could understand the services the parish provided. “During the pandemic, we have been translating all our press conferences and are now translating all press releases to distribute to local Hispanic media outlets,” said Lee Sheng. Jefferson Parish launched “JP Noticias” a Spanish text messaging service to provide regular updates to Hispanic citizens.
Because of the efforts of the Hispanic Outreach Task Force, there have been several resources that are reaching those in need. The city of New Orleans set up additional mobile testing sites with bilingual personnel and brought them to locations that were accessible to community members. As Mayor of New Orleans Latoya Cantrell expressed during the press conference, “One of the reasons that we are increasing testing is because we recognize that there is fear, as well as a lack of access and barriers that have prevented our people from coming to get tested.” Latinos, some of them undocumented, are fearful of accessing government-run testing sites. Echoing the same message from the mayor, Moreno added, “We think that no one should have to suffer in the shadows, so, we want to ensure that everyone feels welcome and has access to testing and treatment.”
As we move forward and try to recover from the pandemic, it is important to continue to bring visibility to the Hispanic community. As the Consul of Mexico, Tito Livio Morales Burelo expressed, “This pandemic highlighted the importance of the Latino workforce and the contribution of Mexican labor, in particular, because most of these workers are essential in various sectors, including farming and agriculture, and they help make sure the food supply was not interrupted.” The Latino workforce is essential to the economy of the United States and of the State of Louisiana.
As Mayra Pineda, the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana said, “We are beginning to make important inroads which result in greater diversity and inclusion, but much more needs to happen, and a key to this effort of visibility and representation is this year’s census, which not only will bring resources to communities where Hispanics live, but also a political voice and equal opportunities.”
As we wait for an official population count from the 2020 Census, we don’t have to wait to confidently say that because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the work in unity of our city and community leaders, Latinos in Louisiana became visible and the outreach efforts are a strong foundation for a bridge between communities, an effort that was needed to make the Latino community seem as what it always has been -an integral part of the community at large.