Paul Fleming & William Lopez: Why Hispanics are at higher risk to suffer health, economic consequences

May 6, 2020
Written By:
Nardy Baeza Bickel

Teenage woman wearing a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image credit: iStock


U.S. Hispanics are more likely than their white white counterparts to be affected by coronavirus independently of their immigration status. Two University of Michigan School of Public Health experts explain why, and offer some solutions the federal government could use to mitigate these negative consequences.

Paul J. Fleming

Paul J. Fleming

Paul Fleming, assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health, uses a community-based participatory approach with Latino immigrants to examine how policies and discrimination contribute to poor physical and mental health outcomes. Email: [email protected].

William Lopez, is a clinical assistant professor at the School of Public Health and faculty director of public scholarship at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. He is the author of the book “Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid.” He can discuss how racial discrimination has intersected with the pandemic. Email: [email protected]; text: 210-363-1458.

William D. Lopez

William D. Lopez

Why are Hispanics and communities of color, in general, disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

People of color are bearing the brunt of the disease because their housing situations, exposure to pollution, access to health care coverage, or placement in jail or detention are all worse than whites because of the legacy of racist and discriminatory policies made them more likely to be exposed to the virus and have complications.

In the United States, we’ve had centuries of policies that have given white Americans advantages over people of color. The economic system of chattel slavery created vast inequities, but those inequities were continuted into the 20th century with Jim Crow laws, racist immigration policies, redlining and discriminatory housing practices, and large government assistance programs that were effectively “affirmative action for whites.” This set the foundation for vast economic and health inequities along racial lines where whites were advantaged and people of color were disadvantaged. More recently, the war on drugs and policies of mass incarceration as well as continued employment, housing and education discrimination have entrenched these inequities.

What are some of these inequities?

Many Latino immigrants are still working in extremely high-risk jobs, such as meat packing, in which precautions are not taken and the environment is ripe for infectious disease transmission. Latinos are also overrepresented in industries such as restaurants, food services, etc., that have been considered as essential workers but have not always been provided sufficient personal protective equipment.

Also, it’s important to emphasize that there are systemic reasons for these differences in characteristics and not just ascribe them to something “cultural.” Some characteristics that may impact the spread of COVID in the Hispanic population include living in multifamily residences, working jobs more likely to interact face to face with customers, or living in states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion opportunities of the Affordable Care Act. Latino networks are also often “mixed status” networks, meaning they contain members of all immigration statuses living alongside each other. Undocumented immigrants cannot receive COVID stimulus funding, nor can those married to them, forcing others in their network to address the economic impacts that the federal government is ignoring.

What are some tactics that the government could take to mitigate some of these inequities?

Since much of these disparities are caused by policies that create inequity whether or not we are in a pandemic, the first strategy is to work toward large-scale equitable policies and to elect leaders who support these policies. To control the spread of coronavirus in Latino communities, federal, state and local governments must: 1) provide stimulus checks for Latino immigrants and people married to immigrants so they can choose to stay home; 2) ensure communications about stay home orders and how to protect yourself are available and promoted in several languages, including Spanish and indigenous languages; 3) target testing in these communities with large percentages of essential workers; and 4) combat narratives that “immigrants are disease carriers,” which will only hamper efforts to control the virus. To minimize transmission in the U.S., it will be imperative to include resources for our Latino neighbors.