Three ways immigrants are fighting COVID-19

Immigrants working as a nurse, picking grapes, and playing the cello.

Immigrants have been a key part of maintaining the health and well being of Americans in good times and bad. Irish immigrants were key supporters of the Union Army during the American Civil War. Bracero workers from Mexico formed the backbone of food production in the United States during World War II, and immigrant entrepreneurs from around the world were a driving force in rebuilding the economy after the Great Recession

As the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic shifts to the United States, immigrants in this country are right where they have always been: on the front lines working tirelessly to ensure our communities stay safe, healthy and supported. Immigrants are over-represented in direct health care, life science research and other industries that have been deemed essential, such as food/agriculture and transportation. As such, there are many ways that new Americans are keeping the country going in this life-or-death crisis.

Health Care 

Immigrants are vital to the health care industry. While the foreign-born make up just 13.7 percent of the U.S. population, they are a full 35.2 percent of home health care workers, 28.5 percent of physicians, 18.5 percent of lab technicians and 15 percent of registered nurses. Immigrants are even more critical in rural areas, which depend disproportionately on foreign-born physicians. As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States increases, immigrants make a convenient target for people who are frightened and looking for someone to blame. It’s important to note that so many immigrants are stepping up and taking on the risk of infection to keep hospitals running and treat patients.

Behind the scenes, foreign-born researchers are leading the charge to find a cure for coronavirus. In fact, the first potential vaccine to enter clinical trials was developed by Moderna, Inc. The company was founded on research by Derrick Rossi, a Canadian immigrant and a 2015 ILC Immigrant Entrepreneur Award nominee, and the current CEO, Stephane Bancel, is from France. They, like so many others, were drawn to Massachusetts to work in one of the life science industry’s most successful global hubs. Without drawing such international talent, this promising vaccine might never have been developed.

Another company that has entered clinical trials with a potential vaccine, Gilead Sciences, is carrying out its research in both the U.S. and Wuhan province, China. Under the leadership of Executive Vice President for Pharmaceutical Development and Manufacturing Dr. Tiayan Yang, an immigrant from Taiwan, Gilead hopes to adapt medicines that were originally used to treat MERS and SARS outbreaks. Dr. Joseph Kim’s “typical immigrant story” also draws attention to the benefits of immigration in the face of a crisis. Kim’s company, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, is also working on a vaccine, and reportedly gave President Trump the “most optimistic answer in a March 2 meeting.

Essential Services

In the past few weeks, immigrants have shown their inherent social value as essential workers in a variety of fields, including food and grocery services, transportation, sanitation, agriculture and maintenance. Foreign-born workers are again over-represented in all these fields. They make up almost 50 percent of maid services and 25 percent of janitors are immigrants. These professions, which already face health care risks, are even more dangerous as it becomes imperative to clean workplaces, public spaces and health care centers in order to contain an infectious disease.

As many of us maintain social distance and rely on weekly grocery store trips or food deliveries, we are reliant on new Americans who make up 22 percent of food service workers and 17 percent of delivery drivers, as well as a staggering 42.5 percent of all agricultural workers. Even as circumstances become more and more uncertain, immigrants are on the job, day after day, to make sure that their communities stay safe, clean and well fed.

Lifting Spirits

With no clear end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not surprising that many people feel anxious or afraid. Throughout it all, many immigrants are offering messages of hope, unity and a sense of community. Immigrant organizers have been on the frontlines of mutual aid networks in cities like Boston, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles to assist vulnerable neighbors with daily tasks, health care access and financial support. While these groups are first and foremost there to help with material needs, they are also an important way of showing community members that they are cared for and valued. “In times like these, people really do want to help, and it’s so important to push back against the isolation and turning inward and selfishness that can come in times like these if we don’t remind everyone that we have everything we need to support one another,” said Ria Peebles, a Washington D.C. area organizer who is coordinating relief with both U.S.-born and immigrant communities.

As cultural events go online, immigrants are among those finding ways to share art and culture with a public that is staying home. The annual Pittsburgh Irish Festival is leading the charge to put massive, multi-artist events online. Musicians, from Haitian rapper and three-time Grammy winner Wyclef Jean to Chinese-Parisian-American classical cellist YoYo Ma, are making their music available for free. Ma has even dedicated his free performances to the workers who are on the front lines of the crisis as a way to send them encouragement and cheer. His is a powerful example of how everyone can pull together in this time to give each other hope and encouragement.

Vulnerable to Prejudice 

Even with all that foreign-born workers and community members are doing to address the many impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been increased incidences of prejudice and violence toward immigrants. Those of Asian heritage are particularly vulnerable, as their ethnicity is erroneously linked to the likelihood of infection. Americans can combat this fear and prejudice by reminding ourselves of all the ways in which our immigrant community members are working hard at this time to keep the whole country moving forward. Whether it’s in health care, essential sevices or providing us with the hope and inspiration we need to keep going, immigrants should be thanked, not threatened.

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