N ew COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are in decline, 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 residents in Sonoma County — many of them Latino and many of them undocumented immigrants — a return to normal 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 hit hardest in places that reflect the county’s long history of economic, ethnic and racial disparities.
Health advocates and county health officials say these “preexisting” inequalities are not going to disappear once public health restrictions are lifted.
“Normal was never good for our undocumented residents, our low-wage workers, and so we don’t want to go back to normal,” said Oscar Chavez, assistant director of Sonoma County Human Services Department.
Chavez said the post-pandemic challenge will be to “change the way normal looks” and make recovery more equitable.
“What we know from this pandemic, and any disaster, is that it is always our most vulnerable that are the hardest hit — our disabled, our elderly, our undocumented, our communities of color,” he said. “And they’re also the last to recover.”
That’s the case for people like Lizet Castañeda, a Cloverdale wine industry worker who will be clawing back to the margins of our local economy long after the pandemic is over as she struggles to find enough work to pay for rent and buy groceries.
For her and many other low-wage workers, the frustration of wearing a face mask and being unable to gather with friends is the least of her concerns.
Though most Sonoma County residents have felt some form of psychological and emotional strain in the past two years, those who lost a loved one to COVID-19, experienced severe illness, were hospitalized or suffered extreme financial hardship experienced a distinctly different pandemic reality.
Citing observations made by University of Southern California ethnic studies professor Manuel Pastor during a visit to Sonoma County in November, Chavez said COVID-19 was the disease that revealed the illness in our society.
“We were just not prepared,” Chavez said. “Whatever idea of a safety net we thought we had, COVID proved us wrong. And so, we’ve got to re-imagine what a safety net, a responsive safety net, looks like 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 her adult son. The 52-year-old works at a local winery, washing tasting room glasses.
Castañeda, who was fully vaccinated but not boosted, said she’s not sure where she contracted the virus, but one day in mid-January, she started feeling body aches. Her husband came down with a fever, she said. All tested positive.
Castañeda said like many other immigrants, she does not have paid sick leave and cannot afford to take time off.
Her biggest worry, she said, is her ability to pay her rent in her motel-like apartment, which is due to increase from $1,348 to $1,420 a month in March. She said that if the rent is not paid after five days past the due date, she’s charged $50 a day.
“There are people who are working who are infected but still working because they have to keep working,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I’m afraid that I’ll get sick again.”
Like many other low-income immigrants in Cloverdale, Castañeda has received help navigating through the pandemic from La Familia Sana, a grassroots nonprofit that promotes health and wellness among disadvantaged Latino and Indigenous-language communities.
Mayra Arreguin, an organizer with La Familia Sana, spends much of her days canvassing modest apartment complexes in Cloverdale, in search of families that have run out of food or are struggling with rent payments and utility bills. She connects them with pandemic-related financial assistance and food bank donations.