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In California's wine country, vulnerable residents slammed by COVID-19 and wildfires in same year

In California's wine country, vulnerable residents slammed by COVID-19 and wildfires in same year

Picture of Sarah Klearman
(Photo by Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been a hell of a year for just about everyone in California’s Napa Valley. 

This community, like just about every other in America, continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of loss of life, sickness, lockdowns and job loss. But Napa Valley is also grappling, too, with the aftershocks of two devastating wildfires, both of which dealt serious blows to the hospitality and wine industries here, the two largest employers in the county.

But it was in my reporting on those two twin crises that a discussion with a nonprofit leader stopped me in my tracks. 

“Disasters have a way of exposing the most vulnerable among us, and putting them in harm’s way,” he told me.

Reporting from myself and colleagues has made clear that there are many groups in our community that have suffered especially badly through these two local crises: Demographic data shows the valley’s Latino population, for example, has been disparately impacted by the pandemic. Though they make up less than 35% of Napa County’s population, they’ve consistently made up between 50% and 60% of its COVID-19 cases (a figure notable even considering a somewhat incomplete data set from Napa County that classifies the ethnicity of 14% of cases as unknown). 

Then there are also blue-collar workers, many of whom were already living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic and the wildfires — and the subsequent economic declines they prompted — hit. Fires and the pandemic have caused loss of work and loss of wages for staff in restaurants, hotels and tasting rooms, and for workers in vineyards. So many of these folks are also underinsured or completely uninsured, either because their workplace does not offer health insurance or because their wages simply do not allow them to afford their premiums.

Another group hit exceedingly hard by the pandemic: undocumented immigrants. There’s no denying this was a marginalized, vulnerable group in Napa Valley before the pandemic and the fires, but like my source said, these disasters were putting them more than ever in harm’s way. Undocumented workers do not qualify for federal assistance: perhaps most importantly, they do not qualify for unemployment insurance. There is no income safety net for these immigrants. And there is much overlap between these three very vulnerable groups: folks who are Latino, blue-collar workers and undocumented residents. 

That’s a description of many of Napa Valley’s farmworkers: blue-collar workers who are majority Latino and majority undocumented. There was no denying the pandemic had put their wellbeing at risk in just about every sense of the word — physically, mentally and financially. 

A lot of the existing reporting on the farmworker community in the North Bay, including some of my own reporting, falls into the same trap: “top-heavy” reporting that relies heavily on the testimony of policymakers and community organizers. While theirs are valuable points of view, I knew I needed to hear directly from the farmworker community itself. It would be difficult: language barriers and privacy concerns prompted by immigration status had proved obstacles in the past — but I knew it would be important. I wanted to report on the many different kinds of health impacts farmworkers had been dealing with, and about how they were facing financial desperation. I wanted to know about the mental health impact of knowing you’re on your own amid two significant crises. About what resources are even available to farmworkers in the North Bay. 

I also felt bothered by our newsroom’s exclusively English-language content — even if I did do this reporting and engage as deeply with the community as I wanted to, its substantive Spanish-speaking population wouldn’t be able to read it. I’m what I would call a functionally conversational Spanish speaker, but I’ll be the first to admit that my writing abilities simply aren’t up to publication standards.

That’s why I’m so thrilled to have been chosen as a 2021 Impact Fund grant recipient. Funds from the Center for Health Journalism will go toward helping me engage more deeply with the community; toward collaborating with a popular local Spanish-language radio show; and toward translating my articles into print-standard Spanish.

With the help of this grant, it’s my hope that this work will open the eyes of the broader Napa Valley community — both locals and the tourists here who may not realize who picked the grapes that made the wine they are drinking. I also hope it opens the eyes of our elected officials. Finally, it’s also my hope that this series ultimately gives back to the farmworker community and the marginalized populations within it, helping to connect them to infrastructure, resources and each other. 

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