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Commentary Justice

What this pandemic reveals about El Paso

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By Dr. Luis Fraga, Dr. Mark Lusk, Dr. Nicholas Natividad and Dylan Corbett

The novel coronavirus pandemic is teaching us that who gets sick and who recovers often depends on vulnerability. We often think of vulnerability in terms of advanced age, pre-existing conditions or some other way a person’s health is fragile.

What this pandemic magnifies, and what experts the world over now tell us, is that social vulnerability, too, can mean the difference between life and death. Socially marginalized communities like the homeless, children living in poverty, migrants and low-income families are facing the most dire consequences of this pandemic. El Paso is no exception.

Who is in greatest peril?

You cannot shelter in place if you have no home. The hundreds of persons in El Paso without a place to lay their head at night face an unreasonable choice – to live on the streets or to reside in crowded shelters where coronavirus can spread.

We have the fourth-highest rate of children living in poverty in Texas. Families living in poverty are required to shelter in place and parents struggle to balance child care and complicated on-line schooling while scrambling to put food on the table.

Perhaps we had forgotten how “essential” migrant farmworkers and service workers, like those working at the grocery store cash register, really are.

But we know that the migrant laborers who continue to cultivate and pick our food earn less than minimum wage and have no guaranteed access to health care.

And many service workers, like those who work in our restaurants, now have no secure income stream and few resources to care for their families. The unemployed, now in greater numbers than any time in recent history, run the risk of eviction from their homes and, as we’ve seen from the long lines at local food banks, even hunger.

Immigrant detention centers in El Paso jail asylum seekers and migrants who crossed the border seeking safety and security. But government reports have documented the poor, cramped conditions and inadequate health services in these prisons, where coronavirus threatens to spread like wildfire. 

This epidemic has laid bare the fractures of our society and magnifies the inequities and suffering to which we’ve become desensitized. But it also offers us an opportunity to examine the causes of this unequal suffering and rebuild stronger.

How will El Paso change? As a community we must raise our expectations and demand solutions of the leaders of this city to end conditions that create homelessness, unstable and unappreciated work, a broken health-care system, and indifference towards migrants. 

Arundhati Roy has said, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” 

We now see that the gross inequalities lying just below the surface of our society are a question of life and death. Let us pray for grace, wisdom and strength to build a just city for all, starting with the most vulnerable.

Dr. Luis Fraga, Dr. Mark Lusk, Dr. Nicholas Natividad and Dylan Corbett are affiliated with Hope Border Institute, a nonprofit that brings the perspective of Catholic social teaching to bear on the realities unique to our US-Mexico border region. 

Cover photo: The needs for assistance from El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank has exploded since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in El Paso, leaving tens of thousands of people unemployed and facing food insecurity and other vulnerabilities. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

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