Dalia was working in a clothing factory in South Los Angeles for about five months when the COVID-19 outbreak hit in mid-March. The workload got heavy when the factory started receiving orders to make face masks. Dalia, who was in charge of trimming the masks, sometimes would take extra work home.

Like many other undocumented workers, Dalia, who was focused on earning money to make ends meet, thought she was safe at work.

“I would have my hand sanitizer, my disinfectant towels. I thought I was prepared,” said Dalia, 45, who didn’t want her last name used because of her immigration status.

Then, on April 14, as she was returning home after work with a load of 500 masks when she started to feel sick.

“I started feeling chills all over my body… By midnight I started coughing a lot and I felt my waist was breaking in half and my head was cracking,” she said. “I knew this wasn’t normal and I told my husband to take me to the hospital.”

The next morning, a hospital confirmed she had the symptoms of coronavirus. She tested positive.

Dalia said she worried the most about her two children, ages 14 and 8, and for her husband, who is diabetic. Her husband tested positive, too; the children had no symptoms.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not,” she said. “It is when you are so sick that you pray for a few more days of life.”

Dalia and her family live in Los Angeles’ District 9, which includes some of the poorest parts of the city, with four of every 10 residents living in poverty.

Where people live does matter when it comes to how vulnerable they are to the coronavirus.

In Los Angeles County, people in low-income communities, like Dalia’s neighborhood in South Los Angeles, are infected with the virus at twice the rate of those in wealthier communities, according to a county health department database as of May 1. 

In areas where more than 30% of residents live in poverty, 303 people per 100,000 residents were infected, compared with 156 people per 100,000 in areas where less than 10% live in poverty.

Residents of those low-income communities also are more likely to die of the virus: A rate of 15 deaths per 100,0000 residents, twice the rate of people in the wealthier areas, according to the database. African Americans have the highest death rate in the county, followed by Latinos.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people of all ages with underlying medical conditions, such as Dalia’s husband’s diabetes, are at high risk of becoming infected. Other vulnerable health conditions include chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, kidney and liver problems and obesity. 

Overcoming obstacles

Randall Kuhn, a demographer and sociologist with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who specializes in the demography of vulnerable populations, said the biggest concern for the Latino population is that many are working in jobs that have been deemed “essential.”

“People working in food preparation, food service grocery stores, whatever it might be because that’s the job they can get because they are in poverty,” Kuhn said.

He said that more investigation needs to be done in neighborhoods because the place where people live matters when it comes to their ability to survive the virus.

“We need to know a lot more, there needs to be a lot more testing and there needs to be a lot more analysis of who’s getting most sick, with a real focus on race and neighborhood and poverty,” he said.

Dalia and her husband were not hospitalized, and they have recovered.

But they faced many hardships.

The family of four lives in a small studio apartment and it is virtually impossible for them to maintain social distance. Dalia’s landlord loaned her a trailer truck parked in the property. She went into isolation there for nearly two weeks, and her husband stayed in the apartment. Her two brothers left food outside their door so they wouldn’t get infected. The children were sent to one of the brothers while their parents recovered. 

After a week or so, she started feeling better. However, Dalia and her husband, who are street vendors on weekends, have been unable to work for weeks. They survived on donations from nonprofits and individuals. She is ineligible for unemployment because she is undocumented.

Dalia said the owners of the factory where she worked never offered her any help, so she doesn’t want to go back to work for a company that doesn’t care about workers’ health.

“For them it was easy to get rid of me and replace me right away,” she said, “because work doesn’t wait.”

Jacqueline García is a reporter with La Opinión. This article is part of  The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

CalMatters COVID-19 coverage, translation and distribution is supported by generous grants from the Penner Family Foundation and the Blue Shield of California Foundation.

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Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. She is based at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles, where she has covered issues ranging...