By Mary Hennigan
Arkansascovid.com

A Hispanic factory worker in Benton County, who likely contracted COVID-19 in July from her workplace, has continued to suffer health consequences that have affected her ability to work.

The 38-year-old has experienced prolonged fatigue and back pain, which has sapped her energy levels, she said. Rest and Tylenol are used in place of another doctor’s visit because of her fear of not being understood and her fear of wasting money.

The worker, who speaks only Spanish, was interviewed with a translator. Her identity and name of workplace are being withheld because she fears her employment would be endangered if she spoke publicly.

Yet the broad outlines of her experience resonate with many in Arkansas’ Hispanic community, which has suffered a hard blow from the pandemic. At nearly 8% of the state’s population, the group accounted for about 17% of total positive COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 8.

One reason Hispanics are harder hit in the pandemic is because many are essential workers, keeping store shelves stocked and factories running. Mireya Reith, founding executive director of Arkansas United, said the large number of cases boils down to this simple fact: “Our [Hispanic] communities never stop working.”

The community has suffered 90 deaths, which accounted for nearly 6% of the state’s Oct. 8 total, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. “In an everyday perspective, there’s almost no one, of us, in the Latinx community that doesn’t know somebody who’s been infected,” Reith said.

Because the Benton County worker did not have a fever at the beginning of her shift, she was required to complete the workday. After work, she was tested at a clinic with the help of a translator, later to find herself positive with COVID-19.

During her two-week quarantine period, the worker received an average of $500 weekly to supplement her income, she said. After returning to work, she still did not feel healthy and was sent back for an additional two weeks at home.

The additional two weeks originally were unpaid but were supplemented later after she complained to her employer. Running low on funds and without permission to leave the house, the family, including her four children, were living with just water, she said.

Federal officials faulted Arkansas officials in June for failing to communicate the dangers of COVID-19 to the Hispanic community. Local leaders say there’s been some improvement getting Spanish-language warnings since that time. 

“There is improvement within the Arkansas Department of Health in terms of what is specifically COVID, but that culture of translating has not permeated to other programs,” Reith said.

Beyond the issue of language were the conflicting messages that came from early-pandemic warning signs, Arkansas Rep. Nicole Clowney said. “Those mixed messages were as harmful to vulnerable communities in Northwest Arkansas as the lack of understanding in Spanish or Marshallese, ” Clowney said in an interview with Arkansascovid.com.

Clowney said the state didn’t effectively communicate on two major issues concerning the Hispanic community: identification isn’t required to take a COVID-19 test and that the tests can be obtained for free. “You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to get a COVID test. You have to show up and want to get a COVID test to get a COVID test,” Clowney said. 

The CDC studied Arkansas’ COVID-19 distribution efforts from June 13 to July 4. The team found the Hispanic and Marshallese communities were disproportionately affected by the virus, specifically because of lack of communication to these communities, according to the CDC report.

“The CDC coming to Arkansas was a sign that they were paying attention,” said Margarita Solorzano, executive director of the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas.

Since the visit, Solorzano said she has noticed more resources such as food distribution and the reporting of numbers within the Hispanic group. Although these efforts are appreciated, Solorzano said she thinks the information reported is consistently political in nature.

Improvement for the future will come with the inclusion of state officials to represent their people, Reith said. COVID-19 highlighted the communication issues but have stemmed from years of systemic issues. Since 1987, Arkansas has been considered an “English-only” state, which means there is no other official language than English, according to state law.

The existence of this law made Arkansas’ COVID-19 translation efforts unsurprising to the Hispanic community, Reith said. “[Translation] now needs to be integrated everywhere, and not just with COVID.”

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Mary Hennigan is an ArkansasCovid intern and a senior journalism student at the University of Arkansas. She is studying for a news/editorial focused degree with an anthropology minor. @maryhennigan_