By Daniel Sheehan, AFOP Executive Director

As we prepare to kick off this year’s National Farmworker Awareness Week, we must recognize the sad fact that, for reasons that have nothing to do with the coronavirus itself, even a moderate pandemic will hurt farmworkers and other lower-income people much more than others.  These Americans who cannot hide from the coronavirus could disproportionately lose income, compared to those with advanced education or more-skilled professions.  Children receiving free and reduced lunches may risk going without meals if schools close.  Working parents may have to scramble as children get pulled out of school and day care.  Health care workers risk getting sick if an outbreak brings an influx of patients into the emergency room.  Undocumented immigrants are less likely to call off work or check into a health care facility due to lack of health insurance and federal ICE-enforcement fears.  Many others will likely avoid seeking care because of the potentially devastating financial burden.


The risk of contracting an illness like Covid-19 is greater for low-income people, and so is the subsequent likelihood of death.  Experts point to high Covid-19 mortality rates among the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, high blood pressure, and cancer.  Should the outbreak become widespread, they say it will probably be most devastating for the poorest Americans and for communities of color, who already are dying at younger ages and at higher rates from these common conditions.


These experts say that generic plans for pandemic virus preparedness are unlikely to encompass farmworkers or address their vulnerabilities.  Why is that?  Farmworkers face several factors particular to their experience that may increase exposure:


  • Language barriers/low literacy
  • Fear of job loss
  • Inability to prepare owing to lack of resources
  • Crowded housing
  • Lack of transportation/need for public transportation
  • Limited access to television, radio, telephones, and the Internet
  • Temporary employment, potential unfamiliarity with surroundings


They also suffer from the following factors affecting timeliness and adequacy of treatment:

  • Lack access to care (insurance status, lack of transportation, migratory practices)
  • Cultural barriers
  • Fear of authorities
  • Discrimination and profiling


What can be done?  Most immediately, state and local authorities, in collaboration with farm owners and agricultural extension agents, should include farmworker service organizations, such as migrant clinics, AFOP, and other sources trusted by farmworkers, in planning for and responding to pandemic events.  Such efforts should include:


  • Emergency warnings and public health messages disseminated via multiple media and taking culture, educational level, and language (Spanish and indigenous languages) into consideration
  • Provision of food and supplies during emergencies
  • Two-way information network (radio, telephone, or trusted messengers) to reach farmworkers in remote rural areas and camps
  • Transportation during medical emergencies
  • Alternative housing for those living in communal arrangements to prevent spread of infection
  • Differentiation of public health and emergency response activities from those of immigration enforcement to promote cooperation of the farmworker community


Only through prospective planning and prompt action will we protect low-income people from coronavirus.  We must do this not only because everyone should have the knowledge to protect themselves protected from virus and the disease it causes, but, also, because the entire community, indeed, our entire nation, is at risk.


To all the farmworkers who work this day despite the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, AFOP, once again, salutes you for your courage, commitment, and dedicated hard work helping to feed our nation in these difficult times.  You have our enduring admiration and respect.


Source: Pandemic Influenza and Farmworkers: The Effects of Employment, Social, and Economic Factors (Andrea L. Steege, PhD, MPH, Sherry Baron, MD, MPH, Shelley Davis, JD, Judith Torres-Kilgore, MPH, and Marie Haring Sweeney, PhD)