COVID-19 has taken the country by storm. The news outlets and media relate the dire news 24/7—we are inundated with statistics of morbidity and sadly, mortality. However one story that is missing but that needs to be told, is the plight of the millions of immigrants who are also in the path of this non-discriminating enemy.
On February 24, new changes to the Public Charge Rule went into effect. These changes, opposed by at least 19 state Attorney Generals, including William Tong of CT, were ultimately deemed constitutional and went into effect barely 5 weeks ago. The rules make it much more difficult for millions of immigrants to achieve citizenship, if they accept any form of support—food, healthcare, housing—during the time spent in this country.
Immediately upon passage, the impact on our immigrant community was huge. As the CEO of Fair Haven Community Health Care, a healthcare organization which serves nearly 18,000 largely immigrant patients, I witnessed many among our immigrant population stop seeking care when ill, stop bringing in their children for immunizations and stop availing themselves of food services (SNAP). The fear of future governmental retaliation for seeking help in the present dominates their decisions and actions.
Fast forward to late March 2020, a mere five weeks following enactment of these changes. The Trump Administration is now saying that they are “temporarily suspending” the recently enacted changes to the Public Charge rule. Why the rapid change of heart? The answer is obvious. As we are all exhorted to stay home, practice social distancing, wash our hands frequently, and call our PCPs if we develop respiratory symptoms or fever, our community of immigrants remain fearful of seeking help.
The incidence of COVID-19 in the immigrant community is likely to skyrocket. Many in this group live and/or work in high density environments. They often live in quarters shared by numerous family members and work in “essential” public-facing jobs such as cleaning, food service, sanitation, etc. They will get sick, and they will likely get sick in large numbers. If at all possible, they will continue to work; having rejected SNAP benefits, they will not have the means to buy food. Because of this poorly thought out rule, it is almost certain that many in the immigrant community will get infected and some may die. Like all patients infected with COVID-19, they will infect others.
I have to wonder whether the current 180 degree turn by the current administration on the issue of public charge rules is motivated by concern for our immigrant community or by concern that the increase in the numbers of immigrants afflicted with COVID-19 will put the rest of us at increased risk. I want to believe that the reason is based on a true wish to minimize risk and human suffering, no matter the nationality of that human being.
If so, I am now begging the government to go the extra step. Help organizations like mine to get the word out to all of our neighbors that we are here to care for them. Help us get the word out that we want to hear from our immigrant community when they are not well, when they are hungry and when they are anxious.
We are here to serve everyone and as we have been hearing repeatedly during the current crisis, we are all our neighbors’ brother. This is true whether our neighbor is white, brown or black; whether they are citizens of this country or not.
As a nation, we have come to the realization that disease does not discriminate based on nationality. Similarly, cure and caring cannot discriminate either.
Suzanne Lagarde MD is Chief Executive Officer of Fair Haven Community Health Care/New Haven.