This week, Florida reached the grim milestone of more than 300,000 confirmed cases of COVID- 19 and more than 36,000 deaths nationwide. As COVID-19 cases spike, intensive care units at hospitals are at capacity and more beds are needed.
In the last weeks, cases in Homestead have risen to an all-time high. Homestead is an agricultural town —just 30 miles south of Miami— that is home to a growing number of indigenous people and immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti many of whom work in the fields and local plant nurseries. The produce they grow is essential to the nation’s food supply.
Even under normal times this is difficult and sometimes dangerous work for extremely low wages. They do not receive adequate health protections from the state or protective gear from their employers. Farmworkers are exposed to toxic pesticides, contaminated drinking water and air polluted with harmful dust particles and exhaust from farm machinery.
During a pandemic this work can be deadly.
If the state —and this country— truly valued the labor of essential workers, farmworkers would be receiving easy testing access, top of the line medical care, housing support, and hazard pay.
Instead, Governor Ron DeSantis is blaming farmworkers for the spike in COVID-19 cases and spreading his anti-immigrant hate.
The most powerful person in the state —who does not know how to wear a mask properly and has refused to take even basic steps to protect Florida’s most vulnerable residents— is blaming those same people for the outcome of his policy decisions.
As part of my work with the American Friends Service Committee, I am frequently meeting with farmworkers in Homestead. We have set up mobile clinics for COVID-testing so we can go directly to farmworker housing and remote areas. We are distributing masks and food and providing cash assistance to farmworkers diagnosed with COVID-19.
I do this work with people like Diana, a farmworker who goes to work every day with the fear of getting infected and infecting her family—because she is their sole provider, not working is not an option. She has not received any protective gear at work, and because of her immigration status she did not get any stimulus money. Despite these hardships, she continues to help feed the nation and keep Florida’s economy going, and still makes time to work with AFSC to support other farmworkers in the same situation.
I also meet people like Angela, who tested positive for COVID-19 while working and pregnant. Because of the lack of available testing she didn’t realize she was infected until she started experiencing complications. Now, she is due at any time, has no job, and lives in Homestead with other six people who are infected. This is who Gov. DeSantis is scapegoating for his failed pandemic response.
Political leaders across the state have called on DeSantis to apologize for his racist remarks. But we need way more than an apology. We need to save lives.
The state of Florida should be providing all farmworkers with easy access to free testing. We need field hospitals and medical services for those who test positive. We need housing for those who can’t isolate at home. We need employers to be mandated to provide protective gear. And we need immediate economic relief for farmworkers and all low-wage workers and their families.
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the dangerous and often exploitative working conditions and other injustices that farmworkers, immigrants, and many others face across the U.S. If we take collective action, we can also make it a turning point.
Farmworkers have always deserved our respect and gratitude for their essential work putting food on our tables. Farmworkers today and always deserve access to a living wage, healthcare, housing, and human rights. It is up to us to ensure that our governor, our policy makers, and this country finally make it happen.
Lis-Marie Alvarado is the Florida Director for the American Friends Service Committee. She tweets from @LisMarieFL.