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Imperial Valley: fight or die in times of COVID-19

Listen to Constanza Mazzotti's voice note

Peninsula 360 Press with the support of Ethnic Media Services

By Karina Alvarado, Anna Lee Mraz Bartra and Manuel Ortiz Escámez

Calexico, California. ? The COVID-19 pandemic affected everyone, however, it significantly harmed the most disadvantaged.

"I had a patient, a young man in his 40s, with no medical problems, only obesity, that is, with a body mass index (BMI) above 50, and he was given COVID in the early 2020s and died. It's very sad," recounted Dr. Tien Vo of the Vo Medical Center clinic in Calexico, a border town in Imperial County in Southern California.

Imperial County - with about 197,000 residents - is one of the poorest regions in the United States. More than 86 percent of the area's total population is Latino.

Before the pandemic, this region was already suffering from serious health problems because, in addition to being a low-income community, it is located near Salton Lake, a highly toxic place due to pollution.

Air and soil pollution in the region has caused areas of Imperial County to have some of the highest rates of asthma in infants, as well as high rates of obesity and diabetes.

"Another thing, very important here, besides obesity, is that there are a lot of people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. We are very polluted because of the Salton Sea and that also contributed to the high mortality rate from COVID," Dr. Vo explained to Peninsula 360.

Photo of a patient with COVID-19 in the clinic of Dr. Vo, who explains that in the region "there are many people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. We are very polluted due to the Salton Sea and that also contributed to the high mortality rate due to COVID" Photo: Manuel Ortiz Escámez.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Imperial County - a region comprised largely of agricultural workers - was one of the hardest hit by the SARS-CoV-2 disease, causing one of the highest hospitalization and mortality rates in the country.

As a border city, the Imperial Valley receives hundreds of workers from Mexico every day who cross the border to work in the agricultural fields.

These workers, although recognized as necessary for the survival of thousands of people by civil society organizations, are groups that have been historically marginalized and ignored by federal and state governments.

"President Trump abandoned us," stated Luis Olmedo, executive director of the Valley Civic Committee.

Despite the fact that the region was highly affected, the federal and state authorities did not give it due importance, thus abandoning the vulnerable communities living in the area.

This neglect not only brought uncertainty to the county's disadvantaged communities, but also triggered other organizations and foundations to cease support.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, even though the state of California had intentions of working with the Imperial Valley to bring about improvements in health, technology, economics and infrastructure, "the ranchers have controlled the politics here?they want people who have no future to keep raising crops from those fields," said Raul Ureña, vice mayor of the city of Calexico.

Imperial County
A protest painting for the contamination of Salton Lake in Imperial County. According to Calexico Vice Mayor Raul Ureña, this county received the least amount of vaccines as it is considered a "rural area". Photo: Manuel Ortiz Escámez. P360P - Ethnic Media Services.

"It was evident that the first alocations [sic] that the state of California makes of all the counties, disproportionately favors those with more population and with more political power. We are talking about San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco. I don't know what the thinking of the officials in Sacramento was, but the Imperial Valley during almost the entire pandemic had the highest mortality rate in almost the entire country," Ureña said.

"We were proportionally mocked here in Valle Imperial," said Ureña, who also pointed out that the first vaccination campaigns were not efficient for disadvantaged communities, since the places where they were located did not have access to public transportation, in addition to technological and language barriers.

Ureña emphasized that, at the state level, this area received a smaller number of vaccinations because it is considered a "rural area"; however, he pointed out that about 50,000 people a day cross the border to work, so it was essential to consider the interaction that takes place, even with Mexican cities.

Luis Olmedo acknowledged that "when President Obama was there, there was a lot of support". He also said that this aid was used to solve the economic and health problems in the area.

When the authorities abandoned them during the COVID-19 emergency, non-profit organizations such as "Salud sin fronteras" (Health without borders) were born, seeking to help the most disadvantaged communities without taking a political stance, because for them the priority is to contribute to improving the quality of life of these populations.

Luis Olmedo, executive director of the Comité Cívico del Valle and founder of the coalition of organizations Salud sin Fronteras, which was born in response to the abandonment of the authorities in Imperial County during the COVID-19 pandemic and which made it possible for the vaccination campaigns against the virus to begin to be successful. Photo Manuel Ortiz Escámez. P360P - Ethnic Media Services.

Vaccination campaigns began to be successful thanks to these civil society groups, who strategically advanced in the protection of the most vulnerable population despite economic and transportation difficulties.

In addition, combating misinformation was one of the biggest challenges for nonprofit organizations seeking to support communities. For, according to Olmedo, political preferences negatively influenced decision making, as anti-mask and anti-vaccine discourses spread throughout the territory.

Myths about alleged heart damage, even the alleged implantation of chips from the COVID-19 vaccine circulated prominently in Imperial County despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that such information is false.

Organizations such as "Health without Borders" faced the pandemic even in the face of particular difficulties in the region, such as health problems due to air, water and soil contamination.

The population of this region was the target of misinformation, but for Olmedo, access to the vaccine was a major barrier.

"Many times our community is not given the decision," commented Luis Olmedo in relation to the influence that myths had on the community to receive the inoculation against COVID-19, because even though misinformation has been one of the factors that has undermined people's confidence in the vaccine, at the beginning of the vaccination campaigns there were few opportunities to receive it in Imperial County.

In addition to the State's resources, focused on supporting the population in the face of the health emergency, the philanthropic sector also joined in and began to provide resources to organizations such as "Health Without Borders" to create campaigns on both sides of the border, so that economic, technological and language barriers would be reduced, creating opportunities for the Latino and farmworker communities to be registered and subsequently vaccinated.

Civil society organizations played a key role in the COVID-19 emergency, mainly supporting farmers and other essential workers through state and federal resources.

Olmedo acknowledged that "with Joe Biden's administration, the doors opened again," and the state administration also increased resources.

After the increase in resources and extensive vaccination campaigns, racism in this part of the country became noticeable, according to Ureña, who heard that various groups of people began to complain about the fact that vaccines and support were being offered to people who cross the border daily or who do not have U.S. residency: "You are giving the resources of this country to people who do not live here or who do not deserve them," they said.

Imperial County had the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the country and, thanks to the work of committed civil society organizations, has achieved one of the highest vaccination rates in California.

With the pandemic attenuated, there are still ongoing issues that significantly affect the health and well-being of the people who live in the area or who enter from Mexico to work harvesting for U.S. companies.

One of the most important current problems is the contamination of Salton Lake.

With a surface area of more than 200,000 acres, this lake is the largest in California and is fed by the New River that runs from Mexicali, through Calexico and empties into the Salton Sea.

This huge lake is one of the most polluted in the United States as it receives huge sewage discharges from Mexico. Pollution and droughts have raised concerns among workers, officials and organizations.

Imperial County
New Calexico River on the border with Mexicali, this river feeds Salton Lake, which is one of the most polluted in the United States. Photo Manuel Ortiz Escámez. P360P - Ethnic Media Services.

Salton Lake affects the health of Imperial County residents and workers

"Agricultural fields have very toxic pesticides and chemicals applied to them, and they have been discharged for more than 100 years into Salton Lake," Olmedo said.

 "California's largest lake offers more than 380 square miles of outdoor recreation, including boating, birding, camping and fishing," Tripadvisor advertises about the Salton Sea. What this description leaves out is that birds turn up dead in the middle of the road and fishing is strictly prohibited.

Imperial County
Residents of Imperial County told P360P that birds that come to Salton Lake to drink water are dying around the lake due to contamination from more than 100 years of pesticide and toxic chemical discharges into the lake. Photo Manuel Ortiz Escámez. P360P - Ethnic Media Services.

What was once a beautiful tourist spot, surrounded by wealthy people's resorts, is now a dry and dangerous town. Olmedo warned that if the lake dries up completely, more than 100 miles around the lake will be affected in terms of health and food, including Los Angeles and San Diego, among other cities, reaching states such as Arizona and Nevada.

You may be interested in: Imperial County: A California COVID-19 Vaccination Success Story

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