“The eyes of Florida are on [Gov.] DeSantis to protect the health and safety of the state’s farmworker communities…”

An Immokalee resident gets tested for the novel coronavirus last week. Photo Naples Daily News.

One week ago, we posted our last update from the battle to blunt the impact of the novel coronavirus here in Immokalee with the title “COVID-19 testing is underway in Immokalee!”  Finally – after more than a month of delay, nearly 40,000 signatures on a petition to Florida’s elected officials, multiple national news stories, and countless calls to Governor DeSantis – local health officials agreed to organize mass testing in Immokalee.  Soon, the farmworker community would have the data it needs to more effectively plan and lead the fight to protect itself from this deadly virus.

Except “soon” is, apparently, a relative term when it comes to Immokalee and COVID-19.  Today, more than a week since the mass testing began last Sunday, the very first results are just now starting to trickle in, while the vast majority of people still have not heard from the Department of Health (DOH) as to the results of their tests.  Meanwhile, calls to the number provided by the DOH for inquiries, according to many who have tried to call since last Friday, go unanswered. 

The consequences of such a long delay in sharing testing results can be grave, and measured in suffering and lives lost.  In the words of Dr. Seth Holmes, a professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health at the University of California Berkeley who is in Immokalee working in collaboration with efforts to combat the virus here:

“It is imperative to give test results as quickly and efficiently as possible,ideally closer to two or three days and definitely within the customary five days.  Every day delayed beyond that is another day of fear and uncertainty for each individual who was tested, another day of people who have COVID circulating in the general public with likely viral spread, another day the public health system cannot conduct contact tracing and other work necessary to control the pandemic.  A delay of more than a week in giving results to hundreds of people who are tested thwarts critical public health efforts and likely leads to unnecessary exposures, infections and possibly even deaths.”  

Surely, more complete results from the nearly 1,400 tests taken last week will be known by the middle of this week.  But every day lost is another foot of ground ceded to the virus, when this community is organized and ready to fight now.  In more normal times, it was common to hear the old adage “Time is money!”  Today, however, time is life, and we can only hope that a clear and complete picture of the results from last week’s tests in Immokalee will be released sooner, rather than later, this week.  And when it is, we will share that news, along with more on the developing plans to take the fight to the virus, as soon as we have the news to share.

And as Immokalee awaits the results of last week’s tests, the question of what comes next is top of mind: Will Florida step up to protect workers and their family members who test positive?  Can test results be leveraged to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the farmworker community, even as workers begin to travel north into new states to follow the harvest?  The online news hub, Food Tank, checked in with CIW’s Nely Rodriguez as the testing wrapped up about what comes next.  Here’s some of the highlights from the excellent post-testing report:

At High Risk for COVID-19, Immokalee Farmworkers Demand Health Care Protections From the State of Florida

Considered essential workers during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, farm workers in Immokalee, Florida, are part of the backbone of the state’s agriculture industry. However, they do not receive adequate health protections from the state. The farm workers’ rights group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), developed a list of demands to keep workers safe and is calling on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to immediately adopt them.

“Farm workers have been deemed essential, but our healthcare hasn’t,” Nely Rodriguez, a CIW organizer tells Food Tank. “We continue to harvest and provide food, but with very little protections.” …

… Four weeks after CIW began their campaign, the Florida Department of Health announced that a mass testing site would open for Immokalee and Collier County residents on May 3. Residents who seek testing do not need to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, nor disclose their immigration status.

While a testing site marks an achievement for the campaign, the governor has yet to address the remaining demands. Rodriguez continues to fear for the health and safety of Immokalee workers.

“If one of us gets sick while we’re trying to continue feeding the nation, then everyone else is going to get sick because we work in such tight quarters,” Rodriguez tells Food Tank.

It is almost inevitable that some Immokalee farm workers will get sick, Rodriguez says. And when they do, the closest hospital is located an hour away from the fields, and many workers are unable to access it due to transportation restrictions. CIW hopes that DeSantis will construct a hospital in the city of Immokalee, where farm workers can receive proper treatment and space to self-quarantine in the case of illness.

“There is no alternative space where workers can recover,” Rodriguez says.

While CIW waits for additional government support, the Coalition is taking matters in their own hands. CIW started a fundraiser to create and distribute masks to help Immokalee farm workers prevent transmission of the virus. Using donations, CIW’s women’s group hand-sewed and provided over 600 masks to workers. Organizers also partnered with the Fair Food Program to educate workers on ways to stay safe during the pandemic.

But Rodriguez does not think their individual efforts are enough. Florida’s tomato-picking industry was once inundated by cases of modern-day slavery and human rights abuses. It was not until CIW-led campaigns like the Campaign for Fair Food and Anti-Slavery Campaign that labor conditions improved. Acknowledging this history, Rodriguez highlights the importance of structural support.

“Farm workers for generations have been lacking attention from the state and the country for delivering adequate protections, so it’s not something new,” Rodriguez says. “But in a moment of crisis like this, it’s urgent for state officials to provide healthcare to workers who ensure that the nation has food on their plate. There will be a food crisis if nobody is working.”

Despite farm workers’ concerns about the spread of COVID-19, Gov. DeSantis is beginning to re-open the economy. Rodriguez believes this is dangerous for communities like Immokalee.

“Instead of taking precautions, what we’ve seen is conversations on re-opening when there are so many vulnerable communities that do not have adequate protection and have not been able to stay at home,” Rodriguez tells Food Tank.

But Immokalee workers are receiving an outpouring of support from their community. CIW is working with the fire department and Lipman farms to provide handwashing stations for workers, Rodriguez says. A local Immokalee clinic, separate from the testing site, is also testing workers with symptoms, Rodriguez says.

As Immokalee workers continue to fight for basic protections, Rodriguez urges supporters to donate to CIW’s COVID-19 fundcall DeSantis on behalf of Immokalee farmworkers, and share information across social media.

“The eyes of Florida are on DeSantis to protect the health and safety of the state’s farmworker communities,” Rodriguez says.

We also want to highlight two excellent opinion pieces that emerged in the days ahead of last week’s testing, both of which are too good to let slip through the cracks.  The first is from the President of the National Family Farm Coalition – and longtime CIW ally – Jim Goodman, featured in The Nation.  Titled “Without Farmworkers You Wouldn’t Eat”, the powerful opinion piece lays out what’s at stake if we allow the nation’s agricultural workforce to bear the brunt of the epidemic without greater protections. We are including it here in full:

Without Farmworkers You Wouldn’t Eat

But stimulus packages aren’t providing the necessary support for them to do their jobs safely.

Frontline workers during this pandemic, who put their lives on the line daily, are rightly called heroes, but a better term might be victims. Cheering and clapping every day for health care and other “essential” workers does, I am sure, give them a much-needed and well-deserved morale boost. This pandemic has changed things; pre-Covid-19, working under stressful conditions, for low wages, often unseen and underappreciated was, for many, just the way it was.

Clearly, health care workers and support staff are at the top of everyone’s essential workers’ list, as they put their lives on the line daily to provide care, comfort, and hope while tens of thousands are dying. We all count on them, while hoping that the virus does not bring us under their care.

Food chain workers are also deemed essential, and, just as in the health care industry, many essential workers, especially farmworkers, are immigrants—75 percent, in fact, according to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey. Undervalued and underpaid and doing difficult and dangerous work, they have always been essential to our food supply, but the pandemic has made that designation official.

Few Americans have ever been inside a food processing plant and witnessed the pace of the work, the physical stress, and the close physical proximity the workers must labor under. It is impossible to socially distance, so this pandemic has added a new threat to their work, and it could soon severely impact our food supply. When Covid-19 necessitated processing plant closures, Smithfield chose to blame the immigrant workers rather than the poor working conditions, low pay, and Smithfield’s failure to ensure a safe working environment.

I know the work ethic of immigrant workers, I’ve seen it in processing plants, in the fields of Immoakalee Florida, and on my own farm. Always, they were hardworking, competent, and just trying to make a decent home for themselves in this country that often does not welcome them and, in many cases, created conditions that forced them to leave their home countries.

The fragility of our consolidated food system is clearly visible during this pandemic: Store shelves are at times empty, while farmers are forced to dump milk and plow under vegetable crops. We saw the lion’s share of last year’s Market Facilitation Program payments go to the largest farms, not small farmers or farmworkers. Now we see a similar situation playing out with Covid-19 payments: Farmworkers who have immigrated to the United States (who pay state, local, and federal taxes) will not, unless they have a Social Security number, qualify for federal stimulus checks or unemployment insurance.

Farmworkers must continue to work every day as the pandemic changes our world. They have always worked for low wages while being exposed to agricultural chemicals and forced to live in substandard housing with poor access to health care. Now they are at even greater risk. An effective response to this public health emergency must include everyone, especially those who put themselves in harm’s way to feed us.

Farmworkers must be provided with adequate personal protective equipment and the ability to practice social distancing while they work. Housing and transportation for workers must be improved to eliminate the cramped conditions under which workers are forced to live—conditions akin to living in a petri dish.

Paid sick leave and direct payments to farmworkers must be included in any future stimulus package, and congressional oversight must ensure that payments go to small farmers, ranchers, fishers, and farmworkers rather than targeting commodity growers and agribusiness corporations like the previous Covid-19 stimulus packages.

Readily available virus testing must be provided and, since farmworkers seldom live in communities that provide them access to health care, steps must be taken to set up field hospitals, as was done in cities across the country, before the virus spreads to vulnerable farmworker communities—because if they go down, our food supply goes down with them.

Rather than proposing to cut farmworker wages and put a hold on immigration, perhaps the president should consider the immigrants who feed us, care for us, and help to build our society. Perhaps he might also read a bit from his “favorite book” and take it to heart? “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love them as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33).

Finally, the Tampa Bay Times featured the perspective of FSU medical student, Edward Corty, who provides a clear and deeply troubling picture of the underlying vulnerabilities of the farmworker community, which has long been starved of adequate healthcare resources:

Farmworker health is essential to COVID-19 response

Farmworkers are a uniquely vulnerable population that I have had the opportunity to care for in medical school, writes an FSU student.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security deemed farmworkers across the country to be “essential workers”—now, the federal government wants to cut many of their wages. Farmworkers are a uniquely vulnerable population that I have had the opportunity to care for in medical school. Inadequate housing, food insecurity and poor access to healthcare make these proposed wage cuts not only morally wrong, but also dangerous for everyone. If the administration moves forward with this idea, Florida policymakers must be prepared to support farmworkers in order to secure our food supply chain and the health of the state.

Farmworker housing is inexcusably unsafe—especially during a pandemic. In Immokalee, I’ve walked through houses where 20 farmworkers and family members—including young children—crowd into dim and damp rooms, with each individual only guaranteed 50 square feet to themselves. Farmworker surveys show that this is the norm. One only has to look to recent reporting on migrant worker health in Singapore to see what is coming. This is how COVID-19 spreads.

Last year, I cared for a 40-year-old farmworker with uncontrolled diabetes driven by food insecurity (lacking enough food to lead an active, healthy life). Numerous studies show that two out of three farmworkers are food insecure. Meaning, the person who picks tomatoes off the plant to give us a full plate, usually does not have enough food to feed her family. And it is well established that food insecurity increases the odds of both diabetes and hypertension, conditions that put someone at risk of the worst forms of COVID-19. This is how COVID-19 becomes severe.

I’ve watched doctors in a farmworker clinic call colleagues in areas with more advanced equipment to see if anyone could operate on a patient with advanced vascular disease. The most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey showed that over half of all farmworkers have no health insurance. When they do become sick with COVID-19, farmworkers will be forced into cities to receive care, where health systems are already overwhelmed. This is how COVID-19 explodes.

Greater economic insecurity for farmworkers will exacerbate all of these circumstances—they will live day-to-day instead of week-to-week. Those who are food insecure will be driven into severe food insecurity, thereby increasing rates of diabetes and hypertension. And any fraction of affordable healthcare will be out of reach.

The income of farmers is important, but instead of snatching from the pockets of our most vulnerable, we should look to other parts of the food supply chain to fill this gap. For example, large grocery stores are doing particularly well during this unprecedented time—they could increase pay for farm products without risking the security of their employees. If there is any change to farmworker wages, it should be a significant increase as they continue performing backbreaking work. In addition, farmworkers should receive personal protective equipment, access to COVID-19 testing, and paid sick leave immediately and indefinitely. Farmworkers are finally identified as “essential” — it is time to start treating them like it.

In Nely’s words: The eyes of Floridians – and indeed, the country that depends on the food supply provided by the Sunshine State’s farmworkers – are on Gov. DeSantis.  Stay tuned for updates this week on what is on the horizon for the CIW’s campaign to ensure the safety and health of Immokalee’s, and Florida’s, farmworkers!