WHILE getting gas in a rest area at New Jersey Turnpike, I asked the guy, Shahzaib Malik, who was filling up my car tank, aren’t you scared of Corona Virus? Of course, I am but I can’t stay home so I am here and working, Shahzaib replied sadly. What if you get the virus, I asked him promptly? I don’t know, I don’t have medical insurance, I usually get cold and get the flu when the weather changes, maybe I will die home thinking it is a common flu, he answered while scratching his foot on the ground. As the Corona Virus is rapidly expanding across America, there is a growing concern that low-income residents, people in poverty and undocumented residents may suffer disproportionately — directly, by getting sick, and indirectly, through disruption to their work life.
In America, there are more than 13 million undocumented residents and, among them, more than 60% are living without any health coverage. Similarly, 23% of legal immigrants do not have any medical coverage, according to a 2019 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Today, if you walk into any medical facility and you don’t have medical insurance, you must pay the minimum cost which is $1300 to get tested for Corona Virus. Most of the low-wage jobs in retail and service industries do not provide sick paid leave. The rigid workplace environment which prevents immigrants from reporting their illnesses. For those living paycheck to paycheck, it’s difficult to voluntarily take time off when a week’s wages could make a difference in their ability to pay rent. They often live doubled and tripled up in unstable households where people frequently move in and out. They must rely on public transportation, which can hasten exposure or spread infection, health and poverty experts say. Further, as schools are closed and the source of free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch is cut off, the costs and stress to parents and children increase. If shuttered schools conduct online classes, many low-income students will be left out because they have no computers. One of the parents must take time off from work to be home with the kid which means more financial difficulties. On 24 Feb, President Trump passed a bill about immigration which makes it harder for immigrants to obtain a green card if they’ve sought government help — which includes any form of government health care. Since then, people had been dropping out of Medicaid as the Covid-19 cases began to surface early March.
Moreover, as we have seen Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) speeding up its operations in recent years which has created an atmosphere of fear, undocumented immigrants are hesitant to go to any health care facilities in fear of being reported, even though community clinics are safe places that do not ask for citizenship status. New York, Washington, and California have waived this cost using the state’s special funding. For US citizens and permanent residents, any tests performed by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention are free. Medicaid and Medicare will cover testing costs.
After President Trump declared a national emergency, I reached out to the Embassy of Pakistan to inquire about actions the embassy has taken to safeguard the lives of Pakistani students, visitors and others living with different resident statuses. I was given a few tweets of the Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan which were primarily about embassy visa services during this outbreak, some cancelled events/meetings and precautions that could be used including the use of online services. There was nothing mentioned about communication or coordination with the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) who is very active when it comes to a crisis like this. Maybe the embassy is not required to do so.
In my opinion, as a society, we have accepted and have no issues that there are so many in our community who are uninsured, underinsured, undocumented and unable to take sick leave. We are also okay with the fact that these families and individuals without access to any healthcare are going to get sicker, are going to spread the disease more frequently because they’re not getting care or isolating or getting diagnosed and treated. As we are witnessing its sweep across nations, the Corona Virus is exposing flaws in our “civilized society’s system”. If the freedom of information is a problem in China, then inequalities and the massive disparity in the way people are treated depending on their economic circumstances and their immigration status is the reality of America. The Corona Virus, of course, does not discriminate on those grounds and having large sections of society being unable to see a doctor is suddenly in focus as not just being bad for the individuals themselves, but for the country a whole.
—The writer is freelance columnist, based in the US.