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Exposed, Exacerbated, and Broken: Letter from the President and CEO

This letter is excerpted from Sylvia Puente’s comments at the Forum’s virtual policy fundraiser, "Latinos On The Move: Purpose, Passion, Unity."

Friends and neighbors, 

As I reflect on how the Forum is thinking about the COVID crisis, I think about what COVID has exposed, exacerbated, and broken. The cumulative impact of COVID on Latinos cannot be overstated, and the cost is much more than health. It is ripping through the Latino community with deleterious health, social, and economic consequences.

This crisis has brought to the forefront the structural inequality that exists in our society, and the hardships that so many families have. It’s exposed the challenges of surviving economically when 60 percent of Latino households earn under $15/hour—less than a living wage, compounded by the widening wealth gap. 

COVID has exposed disparities in healthcare access, and the precarious economic state that so many Latinos live in. 

It has exposed the digital divide, which refers to Latinos being less likely to have home internet access—on which most of us are now dependent, whether for working or learning from home. It’s exposed the challenges of remote learning, of families not having enough devices, of three or four children all trying to attend school on one device, or with low bandwidth, which makes internet access difficult and costly.  

From a health perspective, COVID exposed hidden common comorbidities among Latinos, which include diabetes and early heart disease, which we are now realizing were not previously diagnosed. 

These structural inequalities have become exacerbated under COVID for both the Latino and Black community. Latinos are 21 percent of essential workers, and an even higher portion of essential workers in the service and hospitality industries. They’re risking continued exposure to COVID as they fulfill their essential duties and keep our economy running. 

COVID has exacerbated the economic fragility and day-to-day, week-to-week survival that many in our Latino and African American communities face. Many Latinos are on the brink of not having enough to eat, or losing their home, because they’ve never been able to sufficiently save.  

Additionally, many Latinos live in multi-generational homes, and Latinos are the least health-insured racial-ethnic group in Illinois. Regrettably, we’re hearing stories of Latino patients showing up to the emergency room much sicker than they would have been had they immediately sought care. 

And as far as what COVID has broken for the Latino community? Latinos accounted for 82 percent of the growth in U.S. labor market between 2010 and 2017. We have gone from having the highest labor-force participation rate to now having very high unemployment. 

COVID has broken the ability of many Latinos to have a second job, which his historically been their safety net. A recent University of Illinois study shows us that half a million jobs in Illinois will never come back. Many of these jobs are in the hospitality industry, and these jobs are disproportionately held by Latino low-wage workers. 

It has broken our entrepreneurs’ ability to provide for their families and communities. Between one-third and half of small businesses in our historically vibrant Latino commercial strips may never reopen again. 

These Latino entrepreneurs hired their neighbors; their neighbors were loyal customers who spent their money with them. All of that is at risk of unraveling, leading to a potential cycle of disinvestment that can obviously have long-term consequences on our neighborhoods. Will COVID break our neighborhood economic stability? Can 26th Street in Little Village continue to be the second-most tax-revenue-generating commercial strip in the city, next to Michigan Avenue? 

COVID has broken many Latino families’ ability to accumulate wealth, buy housing, and provide higher education resources for their kids. COVID has also broken the ability of many Latina women to provide for their families. Latina women have the largest rates of unemployment among all Latino groups, many being permanently displaced from the labor market. 

As you can see from the Forum’s latest data analysis, none of this is projected to go away any time soon. This chart shows the rate of COVID for every 100,000 people per racial-ethnic groups. It shows that the rate is accelerating, and that there will continue to be devastation among our city, state, and nation. 

However, the challenge is not how do we fix everything, but how do we reimagine what COVID has exposed, exacerbated, and broken. We need to build new systems from the ground up that are designed for equity in our neighborhoods, city, state, and nation. Systems that will address not only what COVID broke, but the longstanding inequities that it has exposed and exacerbated. 

If the Latino community were its own nation, it would have the eighth largest GDP in the world. We must address these issues if we are to maintain this level of economic contribution to our nation. 

One burning question: Will COVID break the Latino community’s growth? 

As I reflect on all these issues, I want to appeal to all sectors of society, philanthropy, government, and the business sector to really determine how we address COVID in the Latino community. 

How do we address the need for employment and new jobs and economic opportunities? How do we address the long-term health implications for working-age Latinos and long-haulers? How do we address the fact that Latinos under 21 have the highest morbidity rate among all people in that age range? How do we deal with the complications for pregnant women? What will be the long-term mental health costs? How do we do all this in a bilingual and bicultural way? How do we find solutions that reimagine?  

While we clearly have challenges in front of us, I hope that you will join me in taking a deep breath, releasing some stress and getting some rest over the holiday. I plan to do this, so that I can came back fully recharged. Wishing you and your loved good health and blessings in this holiday season.