Council for the Advancement of Science Writing

Latinos’ under-recognized role in the U.S. economy drives higher rates of hospitalization and death during pandemic

by Priscila Guzmán | 

Disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infection among Latinos in the U.S. can be linked to their work in essential job sectors. But negative portrayals of the group in public discourse hamper efforts to address racial health disparities, an expert says.

“I’m a researcher, I’m a scientist. And I have learned that how we frame Latinos basically determines how we research them, the questions we ask, the items that we pick, the narrative lines that we draw,” said David Hayes-Bautista during the virtual ScienceWriters2020 conference held Oct. 19-23.

Hayes-Bautista, distinguished professor of medicine and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles, has spent over 40 years studying the health, history, culture, and impact of Latinos in the U.S. He aims to shift negative discussion frames by demonstrating the fact that Latinos are positive contributors to the nation.

National statistics indicate that ongoing racial health disparities have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost 25% of COVID-19-associated deaths in the U.S. were among Hispanics or Latinos, according to an Oct. 23 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Latinos account for just 18% of the nation’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“If you look at the number of hospitalizations per hundred thousand [people], it was 359 among Latinx, compared to 78 in whites. If you look at deaths it was 61 in Latinx, compared to 40 in whites,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during a Sept. 30 virtual panel hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “I think this must now reset and re-shine a light on this extraordinary disparity related to the social determinants of health that are experienced by the Latinx community.”

These social determinants include issues of employment and housing, but Hayes-Bautista adds that societal perceptions limit opportunities and resources for many Latinos.

“Currently, Latinos are framed in a way that drives a lot of the media images,” he said in a pre-recorded presentation released to conference attendees Oct. 13 as part of the New Horizons in Science program of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. “They are usually seen as immigrants recently arrived, dysfunctional, somewhat criminally intended.”

For Latinos, hard work means high infection risk

One way to see a different picture is to look at gross domestic product, or GDP. That is the monetary value of the goods and services produced in a country during a specific period, generally a year.

If the total value of goods and services produced by Latinos in the U.S. were reported separately from the rest of the country, the 2020 Latino GDP would be the eighth largest economy in the world, surpassing Italy, Brazil, and South Korea, according to a new report Hayes-Bautista co-authored for the Latino Donor Collaborative with colleagues at UCLA and California Lutheran University. In addition, the Latino GDP has the third highest growth rate in the world — higher than that of the rest of the U.S.

“How do Latinos manage to do this?” Hayes-Bautista asked. “By having an extremely high work ethic.”

labor force participation, Hispanic and non-HispanicA look at employment status, employment dynamics, and work experience among the population, collectively called labor force participation, bears this out.

Over the past 13 years, the proportion of Latinos age 16 and older who participate in the labor force has been significantly higher than that of non-Latinos, and has increased since 2015, reaching 68.2% in 2019, according to Census Bureau data. In contrast, the labor participation rate among non-Latinos in the same age group steadily declined between 2008 and 2016 and has remained flat.

The dynamic that drives the U.S. Latino GDP is also one of the reasons the group has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

In California, the state with the highest Latino population, death rates from COVID-19 among people aged 50 to 64 are six times higher for Latinos than non-Latino whites, and higher than any other minority group, Hayes-Bautista's research center reports.

“What we are seeing is historic decimation among the Hispanic community by this virus,” said Peter Jay Hotez, a health advocate and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, during the congressional caucus panel. “A huge percent of this is occupational exposure.”

Many Latinos work in the construction, service, farming, and packing industries in jobs that can’t be done remotely. Many in those sectors have to travel to work in tightly packed buses, then spend long days working in close proximity with other people in confined spaces. Reduced access to health care due to lack of health insurance compounds the problem. On top of that, 27% of Latinos in the U.S. live in multigenerational households, which increases the risk of intra-family infection, putting vulnerable older adults at risk. In addition, the prevalence of underlying conditions such as diabetes and obesity put Latinos at higher risk than other groups for serious complications from COVID-19.

“Latinos have the higher case rate because they are out there being exposed far more than others who can shelter at home,” Hayes-Bautista said.

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Priscila Guzmán (@nieves_otero_13) is pursuing a PhD in biology at Kansas State University, where she researches the social lives of bacteria. Read more about her research, #scicomm, mentoring, and outreach activities at nieves-otero.weebly.com.

Images:

(Top) The U.S. Latino GDP, calculated by David Hayes-Bautista and his colleagues, is among the world’s 10 largest GDPs. From 2020 LDC U.S. Latino GDP Report: Quantifying the New American Economy. Reproduced with permission of the Latino Donor Collaborative.

(Bottom) Latinos' participation in the U.S. labor force exceeds the overall participation rate for residents 16 and older. From 2020 LDC U.S. Latino GDP Report: Quantifying the New American Economy. Reproduced with permission of the Latino Donor Collaborative.