Marginalized Wisconsin citizens of color struggle to find proper healthcare in the arms of COVID-19

People of color in the Eau Claire area have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because of language barriers, lack of transportation and social distancing issues

More stories from McKenna Dirks


McKenna Dirks

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, health is influenced not only by access to quality health care services, but the workplace, home and level of education.

Working on a dairy farm as a migrant worker looks like crowded rooms, long work hours and little access to good healthcare. Migrant workers have been left facing these obstacles in the arms of COVID-19 with little to no help.

“The nurses— you’re the only ones who visit the ranches, nobody else,” a migrant worker, who declined to give his name, told a UW-Eau Claire student in an interview. “They (government officials) have not come. Not even a year after the pandemic started.” 

Area migrant farmworkers and Somali refugees have something in common. Local health officials say all lack access to health care and are at a higher risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. In response they are addressing the language barriers, lack of transportation and trust in medical providers. 

Cortney Nicholson, an employee of the Eau Claire County Health Department who specializes in health equity and disparities, said people of color in the Eau Claire area have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because of factors such as language barriers, lack of transportation and social distancing issues.

Dr. Mohammad Alasagheirin, a nursing professor at UW-Eau Claire, said he has been working with refugees from Somalia in Barron County to provide the health care they need. He said there are about 850 refugees living in the Barron area. 

Alasagheirin said the refugees who come to the United States are exposed to a different language and culture where they are forced to survive within a new environment.

 “We are trying to understand their lifestyle and we’re trying to understand their behaviors,” Alasagheirin said. “We are trying to open their eyes on the different things.” 

He said town hall meetings are held regularly to communicate areas of interest within the refugee population. Recently, main concerns have been about the COVID-19 vaccination, Alasagheirin said. 

Because language barriers remain a challenge in healthcare access, he said medical providers of Somali origin are invited to these meetings to help educate the refugees on COVID-19 and the vaccination.

“There’s fear in the community that they won’t be able to ask the question they need because they may not have a provider who speaks that language,” Nicholson said. 

Although language differences provide a large barrier in access to healthcare, it’s not the only problem seen in the community. Nicholson said transportation to get to proper clinics is a challenge.   

“Transportation can be hard for a variety of reasons as well,” Nicholson said. “Depending on their citizenship status, they may not have access to a driver’s license, so then there’s fear of immigration.”   

With transportation being a challenge, Nicholson said the ECHD relies on community-based organization groups, like Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope (JONAH) and El Centro de Conexión de Chippewa Valley to meet minority populations and make sure they are getting the help they need. 

Because refugees and migrant workers have little to no training or education background, Alasagheirin said many of them are working minimum wage jobs, like a meat packing facility. 

He said social distancing in jobs like these is nearly impossible and even if the refugees fall sick with COVID-19, they are still reporting to work in close quarters because these jobs don’t have benefits for taking time off.

The same applies for when they return home for the day— Alasagheirin said the Somali population is accustomed to living with not just their immediate family, but their extended family as well – most in small homes – which doesn’t allow for social distancing either. 

In 2019, the average household size for those born outside of the United States in Wisconsin was 3.09 as opposed to 2.34 for those born in the United States, according to a migration policy website.

Likewise, immigrant farmworkers – who make up 73% of agriculture workers in the United States – are experiencing similar situations around Wisconsin. 

Dr. Elena Casey, a professor of Latin American and Latinx studies at UW-Eau Claire, said she has been working with Dr. Cheryl Jimenez-Frei doing research on experiences LatinX people had through the pandemic. 

Looking for a more diverse response in their research, Casey said she and Jimenez-Frei partnered with nursing students who brought vaccine clinics to migrant workers on dairy farms in the area, eliminating transportation challenges. She said her Spanish speaking students interviewed the migrant workers— most of whom only spoke Spanish— on their experiences during the pandemic.

Many of the farmworkers expressed concerns in their interviews with the students about crowded housing, working conditions and lack of workplace protections due to COVID-19.

According to Casey and Jimenez-Frei, migrant farmworkers can’t work from home and must remain healthy to provide for their families — many of the farmworkers saw the vaccine as a commitment to their family, friends and community.

“We have a child,” A farmworker said in an interview with a UW-Eau Claire student. “Who is going to take care of him? What if I get sick? We were worried that if something happened to us, who was going to work to provide for my son? It was a huge concern because it was going to affect our work and economy.”

Dirks can be reached at [email protected]