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Isolate the problem

How COVID-19 deteriorates social connectedness and exacerbates health disparities in vulnerable populations

“The doctor was not good; she did not want to believe that we had the coronavirus. We were the first Oregon cases. No isolation rules, nothing,” says a Latina mother of two quoted in a Public Health Insider webcast on combating social isolation in vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

College of Public Health and Human Sciences Assistant Professor Jonathan Garcia, CPHHS doctoral student Nancy Vargas and CPHHS alum Cynthia De La Torre, BS ’20, led the discussion and are each involved in ENLACE, which stands for Engaging the Next Latinx Allies for Change and Equity. This program builds solidarity and amplifies youth voices, connecting Latinx and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth in fighting social isolation. 

“We need to reframe the problem of social isolation,” Jonathan says. “Current models place the problem on the individual, suggesting that social isolation is a consequence of their identity. The individual is not at fault; the social context and the system are problems.” 

“Discrimination doesn’t hurt a select few. It hurts all of us.” 

In efforts to address how COVID-19 has made isolation and health disparities even worse for Latinx communities, Nancy began interviewing Latinx parents to see how they were coping. Areas where the community felt most concerned included food security and housing, work, education and health care. 

“I want you to think about the mother who was not believed, not tested, not told to isolate,” Nancy says. “Not only did this instance of discrimination affect the Latinx community, this affected each and every one of us. Discrimination doesn’t hurt a select few. It hurts all of us.”  

Cynthia says Latinx communities learn to rely on one another to help find care and support for each other, which the pandemic has made more difficult due to social distancing guidelines. As a community health worker at Casa Latinos Unidos, she is on the frontline helping Latinx communities receive resources related to pandemic assistance in Linn County. 

Cynthia wearing a mask and holding clipboard in front of drive-up testing tent
Cynthia De La Torre, BS ’20, is pictured at Casa Latinos Unidos’ first COVID-19 testing event, where organizers tested more than 500 people, passed out outreach materials and provided a take-home meal

“When systems fail, it is in the community where sustainability and resilience occur. We cannot do things alone. We need each other,” Cynthia says. 

Parents of Latinx youth older than 13 and in grades 9-12, who are interested in participating in ENLACE are encouraged to contact Jonathan Garcia at Jonathan.Garcia@oregonstate.edu.   

This presentation was part of the Public Health Insider series, a joint initiative by the CPHHS, the OSU Alumni Association, OSU Foundation and OSU Center for Health Innovation. Other videos in this series include “It takes a village: Shared challenges and shared solutions” and “Does your home pass the test?: How environmental health in the home can affect child development.” All three videos will be housed on the CPHHS YouTube channel after November 19. Learn more and register for future webcasts on the OSU Alumni Association’s website.  

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