As Florida Reopens, the Health Crisis in Immokalee Deepens

As Florida Reopens, the Health Crisis in Immokalee Deepens

“Unfortunately, we see a lot of people getting sick and not receiving the proper medical care and resources that they need,” one farmworker said. “For the governor to continuously ignore us is incredibly irresponsible.”

(Courtesy of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

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This article is part of Belabored Stories, a series by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen featuring short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at 

Update: Friday evening we were informed that Collier County is bringing testing to Immokalee starting this weekend. To learn more visit the CIW website.

In April, we spoke with Oscar Otzoy of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) about their fight for access to testing and healthcare. Shortly after we spoke, the workers won that expanded access—and what that testing revealed was frightening. Immokalee has fewer than 30,000 people but has hundreds of cases, more than Fort Lauderdale, a city of 182,000. In the face of this new information, I spoke with Lupe Gonzalo, another tomato picker and member of the CIW, about what the workers are organizing for next.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is that cases have been increasing rapidly every day,” Gonzalo said through a translator. “We have now up to 447 cases here. That’s why we’re pushing heavily for them to bring more testing here.”

It takes a long time to get results after a test, Gonzalo noted, and farmworkers are still being pushed to return to work before their results are in. “The likelihood of getting other people sick is very high.”

The CIW has been pushing to make testing more accessible than it has been in the past. “Once people do test positive, we’re hoping to get more information on what self-isolation would look like for them,” Gonzalo said. “Up until now, in Immokalee there is no place for it. It hasn’t been communicated with us properly what happens once you do test positive.” The farmworkers haven’t been able to get answers from state government about what they should do, and what kinds of living quarters might be accessible to workers who get ill, so they do not pass the virus around communal living spaces.

The county, Gonzalo said, hasn’t given the workers any protective gear at all. “A lot of what’s being provided is through the coalition and the donations that we’ve gotten. We also have a really great group of women that started making masks almost immediately. That has been a really great resource for us to be able to provide masks for folks. How are we supposed to be able to protect ourselves and protect our community when there are no resources?”

The coalition has a website set up for COVID-19 action and donations, where people can give money, masks, or other protective gear, but they are also asking supporters to call the governor of Florida. “We’re asking them to call and directly ask them to help us here in the community. Getting multiple people from various places to call in and say, ‘This is a very vulnerable community, people here need your help,’ is exactly what we need right now.”

The workers are also partnering with Doctors Without Borders, which is setting up mobile clinics and testing facilities in the area. “They are a very well-recognized global medical organization, but it seems like the county is just kind of ignoring that. We continue to need their help. They’re also helping people with other medical needs that they might have. It’s a very well-rounded program that they have here.”

“We were pushing for this so hard from the very beginning, because we knew it was going to get really bad here,” Gonzalo said, “And it’s not just a problem that we’re facing here in Immokalee, because we know that once the season is over, which it pretty much is at this point, workers are going to start migrating up north.” Migrant workers moving from industry to industry, she noted, could spread the virus once again.

The clinics have filled some needs, Gonzalo said, but the workers are still calling for a full field hospital.

The hospitals are rapidly getting filled up. The people who are testing positive will eventually have to go somewhere. Doctors Without Borders has been doing a really great job here in helping us, but they’re constantly moving. . . . which has been actually really great for people that aren’t able to get out and aren’t able to move. But it’s not the complete package of what we’re asking for. You know that it’s going to progressively get worse. Right now, with the testing, we’re already seeing that there’s more cases, but what’s going to happen once people aren’t able to self-isolate, which we know they aren’t able to do?

During all this, the governor of Florida has continued to move toward reopening, declaring victory over the virus. Gonzalo said,

It’s really sad to see that our own governor is ignoring the issues that are happening right here in town. Unfortunately, we see a lot of people getting sick and not receiving the proper medical care and resources that they need. And unfortunately, we’ve also seen people are dying here. For the governor to continuously ignore us is incredibly irresponsible. It’s incredibly saddening and disheartening to see that this isn’t being taken seriously. People just want to open up, but in reality, in places like this very town, the cases are very high, and it’s just going to keep growing.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to get people to take an interest in what’s happening here,” Gonzalo said. “Farmworkers—we’re not seen. During these times, we’re called essential, but we’re still forgotten about. We are essential. And we need help from other people. We need people to recognize what’s happening here.”

According to Gonzalo, the workers have decided upon Friday, May 29 as a national day of call-ins to the Florida governor to demand more action for the farmworkers.

“We knew from the very beginning that we were going to have to fight through this,” Gonzalo said. “Because they were going to leave this very vulnerable community alone. It wasn’t going to be an issue for them at all.”

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.

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