Part One: Coronavirus media round-up…

National and Florida-based news outlets, social media urge officials in the Sunshine State to act now “to minimize the catastrophic harm that the coronavirus could bring to the (farmworker) community…”

CIW on CNN: “It is quite possible that in a matter of a couple weeks here in Florida we may not have enough people to harvest the state’s fruits and vegetables…”

PLUS: Florida Public Health Association, Human Rights Watch, the Sierra Club, RFK Human Rights, and the United Church of Christ join over 180 organizations in calling on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to erect field hospital, provide critical health care for farmworkers…

On April 6th, the CIW launched an emergency campaign for urgently-needed health protections for Southwest Florida’s farmworker community – and one week later, the response has been nothing short of astounding.

Everyday consumers and some of the nation’s most well-respected advocacy organizations – from the Florida Public Health Association and the United Church of Christ to human rights legend Ethel Kennedy and Human Rights Watch – have added their voice to the campaign: Over 180 organizations have signed onto CIW’s open letter for a field hospital in Immokalee, and signatures on the petition have doubled to nearly 25,000 this week. The story of the farmworker community’s unique vulnerabilities – and their fight for necessary and urgently-needed protections and healthcare resources – has also echoed across the landscape of traditional media and social media, alike. 

Today, we’ve compiled highlights from the top news articles and tweets to share with you.  There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s dive right in!

First up, CNN, one of the country’s largest news companies, reported on the dangerous living and working in conditions that millions of essential farmworkers are confronting while laboring to keep food on America’s tables during the COVID-19 pandemic. That harsh reality will not only have devastating consequences for farmworkers’ health and safety, but could also put the entire country’s supply of fresh fruits and vegetables at risk:

The farmworkers putting food on America’s tables are facing their own coronavirus crisis

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

More than a million farmworkers aren’t hunkered down at home as the coronavirus pandemic paralyzes much of the country.

Their labor — in fields, orchards and packing plants — is keeping food on America’s tables.

But workers and groups who represent them are sounding an alarm. Their warning: As the virus spreads, many farmworkers are living and working in conditions that put their health particularly at risk. And if outbreaks hit farmworker communities hard, they say, that could put the nation’s food supply at risk, too.

Growers and farmers say they’re doing everything they can to keep production going and keep employees safe, including scaling back the number of workers they’re transporting on buses, spacing workers out more as they harvest and increasing the number of hand-washing stations.

But workers and advocates who spoke with CNN detailed concerns about lapses in on-the-job safety, such as some farms that lack soap and protective equipment, and others that fail to enforce social distancing guidelines. Limited access to medical care and crowded living conditions, they said, are also major hurdles to keeping workers healthy.

Greg Asbed fears it’s not a question of if, but when, a devastating outbreak will hit. As a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which represents thousands of farmworkers in Florida, he says rural communities like his aren’t prepared for a health crisis.

“Once the virus takes root in a town like Immokalee, it will take off like wildfire,” he says. “That’s our fear … We will see this problem explode.” […]

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida has been using drawings to warn workers about coronavirus. This one aims to dispel myths that only older people are at risk. “All the scientists and doctors agree,” the drawing says. “The coronavirus is not playing, and it’s already here.”

[…] In Florida, Asbed is pushing for officials to set up a field hospital in his community while there’s still time.

“It is quite possible that in a matter of a couple weeks here in Florida we may not have enough people to harvest the state’s fruits and vegetables,” he says. “That’s just an absolutely predictable outcome of the current configuration of things.” […]

CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo spoke at length with Fast Company reporter Pavithra Mohan, about the risks faced by agricultural workers and the need for a timely and adequate response to the unimaginable health care shortage farmworkers are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Immokalee. Below is an excerpt from their conversation:

[…] Here in Immokalee, there’s no hospital. You have to go over an hour to get to the closest hospital, in Naples. There’s no transportation to get there, and what we’ve seen even in the past, even when we haven’t had this kind of crisis, is that we’re not given priority. And it’s very difficult for people to get tested. Those tests are not accessible for workers who are still going into the fields.

Even though agricultural workers are categorized as essential workers, there are no real protections for their health. When they’re going to this essential job, nobody is looking out for how they can better protect themselves—not the local government or state government. What we’re looking for is a way for people to continue to do this essential work, but in a dignified manner that also looks at them as human beings who deserve to have their health and safety taken care of. […]

[…] The growers that are participating in the Fair Food Program are taking some measures to lower the risks for their workforce—for example, providing more buses, so there are fewer people in each bus and they’re able to spread out more. They’re also doing things like cleaning the buses and disinfecting them; they’re providing more spaces and time for workers to wash their hands when they’re in the fields.

One of the companies we work with has also been trying to find other ways to support the community, and we collaborated with them in bringing hand washing stations to some of the parking lots where people are picked up, so workers can wash their hands before and after getting on the bus. […]

[…] We’ve worked very hard to make Immokalee a place where people’s rights are respected and they’re looked at as human beings. Right now, in light of coronavirus, we’ve been asking the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, to take that into consideration and to provide the community here with what they need as they continue to do the important work that the rest of the country needs. […]

[…] If we begin to get sick and have this disease propagate as it has in other communities, there won’t be anyone to pick those fruits and vegetables.

So it’s important for us to understand how we’re all connected… these are protections for all of us. […]

The news is also hitting home in the state of Florida:  The Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an excellent piece that landed on the paper’s front page yesterday, taking a close look at how a delay in advance planning to protect Immokalee’s farmworkers could have serious implications for the entire state:

By Billy Cox

[…] Immokalee is the state’s most densely populated farm labor community. Overall, farming is a $155 million industry in Florida, generating two million jobs.

Closely monitoring events is Laura Safer Espinoza, executive director of the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), based in Sarasota. “We are very concerned that a major outbreak at the (tomato) epicenter of the state in April and May could set off a major economic and labor crisis across Florida.

“These workers don’t just stay there, they go up the coast to farms in Manatee, Hillsboro, they follow the season for the next harvest — they go to Palm Beach County, Miami Dade. So this isn’t just an Immokalee problem, this is a state problem.” […]

[…] “It’s really an emergency for farmworkers because they are regarded as essential workers, but due to the nature of their working and living conditions, they are more exposed than other types of workers,” says CIW spokesperson Nely Rodriguez, through a translator. “Social distancing is not possible because the workers are transported in crowded buses, and when they’re working together in rows it’s hard to stay distant from each other.”

Arriving in the United States from Mexico in 2002, Rodriguez has traveled as far away as Michigan to pick apples. Typically, she says, as many as 50 laborers per bus are transported to the fields, and two to three families can live in the same trailer. Eating lunch together and taking breaks together in Immokalee, they are largely poor, uninsured and they toil 50 miles away from the nearest hospital, in Naples. […]

And locally, Collier County’s principal newspaper, the Naples Daily News, published an excellent piece on Thursday titled “Immokalee farmworkers essential, but among most vulnerable to COVID-19, ringing the alarm for state and local officials to take immediate actions to stop the coronavirus disease from wreaking havoc upon the farmworker community and the state’s produce industry from ruin. Reporter Jessica Rodriguez speaks with several farmworkers and community leaders about the cramped living and working conditions that make social distancing and isolation near impossible to practice:

[…] Crowded buses and housing makes the farm working community one of the most vulnerable populations during a global pandemic. 

For that reason, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization, is urging local and state leaders to take action now before it’s too late. 

The organization launched a petition calling for Gov. Ron DeSantis to build a field hospital in Immokalee for farm workers to quarantine and get treatment. 

The petition also calls for farm workers to be provided with protective gear such as hand sanitizer, free and accessible COVID-19 tests and for allocated public funds for economic relief for farm workers.  

While many Americans can work from home, farm workers are deemed essential workers: Without them, grocery stores are left with almost nothing to sell.

“One of the resources we are asking for urgently in Immokalee is a field hospital for workers because we don’t have one,” Lupe Gonzalo, an organizer within the coalition said.

The nearest hospital is about an hour away from Immokalee, Gonzalo said. And most people don’t have the transportation methods to get there. […]

[…] The coalition is gathering community support in an effort to minimize the catastrophic harm that the coronavirus could bring to the community. 

“Not only do farm workers not have a voice,” Gonzalo said, “but they also do not have the protections they need in most cases.” 

Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, an organizer within the Coalition said that while a farm worker’s job is essential, often the individual worker is not considered essential and can be easily replaced. 

“This isn’t an issue just for farm workers,” Reyes-Chavez said. “It’s something that we all should act on because it will impact all of us one way or another.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, three positive COVID-19 cases were been reported in Immoklaee.

But that could change quickly, Reyes-Chavez said.

“People here live day by day with what they earn,” Reyes-Chavez said. “Poverty is an absolutely limiting factor. This makes Immokalee dry firewood. It will spread like fire and we’re just in the way.”  

And finally, about 280 miles up the I-75 corridor, an important opinion piece landed on the pages of the Gainesville Sun last week, echoing a catchphrase coined by Immokalee farmworkers in the 90s: “We’re not tractors, we’re persons.” Executive Committee member of the National Farm Worker Ministry and longtime CIW friend Sam Trickey centers the human story of COVID-19’s ravaging effects on Florida’s agricultural industry and warns about consequences for our food supply if government officials refuse to extend proper health care protections to farmworker communities across the state:

An opinion piece by Jack Payne, published April 5 in The Sun, lauded Florida farmers’ ability to keep us fed. That’s good, as far as it goes. Florida farmers, like those in other major agricultural states, are indeed crucial, in good times and bad.

But one link in the food chain was missing in Payne’s piece: farmworkers. […]

[…] That is not just sad, it is a recipe for disaster. You see, farmworkers are officially essential in this pandemic. That’s because they are a critical link in the same food chain as the farmers. But they’ve been given no attention, no help in being essential.

Social distancing is impossible for farmworkers. In Florida, as elsewhere, it is common for six to 10 or more farmworkers to live in close quarters in old mobile homes or small houses intended for a small family. Transportation to and from work is in former school buses or vans, again at close quarters. Even the work is close to others in the crew. […]

[…] In fact, in Immokalee there isn’t even a hospital. But there are lots of workers with no social distancing. There will be lots of contagion. The food chain will be at risk. That should get your attention, even if you didn’t care about the workers in Spuds, Apopka, Immokalee, Wimauma, Homestead, Plant City or elsewhere.

Urgent action is needed. COVID-19 testing needs to be done intensively among farmworkers. Now. Appropriate personal protective and sanitation gear must be provided. Now. It is too late for the cumbersome processes of health insurance, so health-care access needs to be provided. Now. Temporary medical facilities need to be set up. Now.

The initial wave of press coverage documenting Immokalee farmworkers’ fight against this pandemic went far beyond the articles in this post, so we are including a list of the many additional pieces that came out both across Florida and across the country, reaching millions of Americans who are now aware of the unfolding coronavirus crisis in our country’s fields — and what Gov. Ron DeSantis can do to stop it.  

And to close off this media round-up, we leave you with some of the highlights from the many conversations happening in the Twitterverse among people from all walks of life — from celebrities like Amy Schumer and Alyssa Milano to faith leaders and human rights experts.  The message circulating online is clear: Immokalee workers need a field hospital, available rooms where people can go to isolate if they get sick and accessible COVID-19 testing in town now — not weeks from now when the hospital system in nearby Naples is overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.  So far, we’ve learned it’s not a matter of whether critical county health resources exist, it’s a matter of if they are being directed to where they are most needed.  And right now, Immokalee is one of those communities that fit the bill for immediate, proactive measures to fight what lays ahead…