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Contact tracers get in touch with people who may have come into contact with Covid-19. In the case of the Spanish speaking US immigrant population, answering questions truthfully may put livelihoods at risk.
“Is there anyone else in the house with you?”
They are the most terrifying words in my COVID contact trace call script. I can feel the chill on the other end of the line as the Spanish translator asks this critical phrase time and time again during my work as a contact tracer.
The person on the other end of the line has recently tested positive for COVID, and they are the American safety net:
A medical facility cleaner.
A food worker.
They are not just your customers; they are your labor force…and they are the face of COVID19, seen or unseen.
Here in the United States, our best effort to combat coronavirus is to ask people to offer information about their whereabouts and close quarters, attempting to stop the spread at local establishments and inside homes. But for the Spanish-speaking immigrant population, I believe this question is lacking at best, and at worst, tone-deaf. It dishonors a world of hardworking and compassionate people with reductive names and addresses, doing nothing to make them feel safe or protected. From an advertising standpoint, the strategy and messaging are completely missing the mark.
For the outfacing American elite who continue to quarantine from coronavirus, summer 2020 has felt like a short breath of fresh air. A certain rhythm has evolved into regular grocery delivery and rare outings for doctor’s visits. Perhaps the urge to remodel the house or install a swimming pool has manifested in the hours wiling away at home: from Pittsburgh to Long Island, the demand for backyard pools is skyrocketing, and construction companies are at their busiest with deemed essential workers.
Scrambling to meet the needs of the languishing consumer’s demand is a population of people working harder than ever. Early in the pandemic, it was the African American workforce who appeared to be hit the hardest by coronavirus’ wrath, with the comorbidity of underlying conditions such as asthma and diabetes resulting in disproportionate death in the black community from the virus. In addition to systemic police violence and racism, one tenant of the seminal Black Lives Matter protests was the healthcare crisis facing Black Americans, and the outcry called for dignity and visibility for a population being actively pushed out of the discourse.
But the Black Lives Matter movement in itself is rooted in the concept of being American. So, what if, COVID and all, your very American-ness was threatened?
This is the reality facing many Hispanic Americans (Latinos)* today.
In July, the Center for Disease Control reported approximately 35 percent of deaths from COVID are Hispanics, even as they make up just 18 percent of the population. Latinos are the largest ethnic group in America after “white,” and suffer a nearly two-to-one risk of contracting and passing away from coronavirus. California, Florida, Texas, and even New York all have huge numbers of Hispanic people—and there is likely a correlation to the spike in COVID cases in these states.
Latinos are on the front lines of the pandemic, even as many workers and sick patients are invisible. The lethal combination of essential work and distrust of government agencies means that every aspect of the current approach to combat COVD-19 fails to sensitize the Hispanic American reality.
The first component of prevention is staying at home. But what if your job still needs you? What if you are putting food on the table not just for your own family, but the entire American food supply? What if you built those swimming pools? Did you clean those doctor’s offices? What if when the so-called real world stopped, it was you that needed to work far harder?
In advertising, brand strategy is contingent on knowing your audience. I believe the reason the Hispanic community is so hard-hit by the virus is a far-reaching disregard and even disqualification of perhaps the largest community in the United States. The generalized campaigns to wash hands and wear masks completely overlook the high-risk work environments required to keep privilege going, to a degree that borders on sanctioned systemic slavery within the country’s borders. Looking at the customer persona of a Spanish-speaking essential worker, how would they have time to peruse the CDC website if they were putting food on your table? The values and families, struggles and fears, all come second in the national messages that protect “Americans.”
Then there is the question of citizenship and security. Although certainly, not all Hispanics in the United States have tenuous immigration status, President Trump’s administration has gone out of its way to strike fear into any at-risk population. Most recently, Trump sanctioned an order that demanded any student visa recipient must return ‘home’ if their university is conducting remote classes. If this regulation targets arguably the most viable demographic of young, healthy, educated leaders from around the world, the trickle-down of horror to the less socioeconomically fortunate goes without saying.
And I hear that silence at work every day. Anonymity is the best protection against threats of deportation, and it is in direct opposition to the nature of contact tracing. If one family member has his or her citizenship at risk, then the entire household may be wary of volunteering information that could stop the spread of the virus. They might not even answer the phone.
All they can do is keep on trucking, going to work and flying under the radar as best they can until something more terrible than deportation necessitates a trip to the hospital. Because the unspoken truth is that if the virus doesn’t kill you, the system will.
There has to be a solution that does not involve intimidation or threatening the security of an individual worker. Advertisers, I call on you to look behind the curtain of the economic reality that continues to perpetuate this virus and kill innocent Hispanic Americans at alarming rates. I ask you to rebrand and shed light on the struggles they face every day and create narratives and solutions that honor their reality. Because the more ignorance, the more death, and the longer COVID will continue to ravage our systems. The widest social distance is this deep-seated economic and intercultural misunderstanding.
And while the Hispanic population is undoubtedly being neglected during this pandemic, their world is just one of many windows to American injustice. There are Alaskan and Native Americans, refugees, and many in poverty who do not receive adequate messaging or support. It is not just one COVID iceberg, but a sea of American inequalities, lurking under a surface of blissful ignorance.
But for now, all I ask is that the next time you think to yourself that it might be nice to have your own swimming pool, please remember to honor the hands who would build it. There are real people out there, suffering to make your dreams come true.
*Also referred to as Latinx