Acknowledging death isn’t easy.
Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.
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Indeed, as the coronavirus ravaged through Orange County’s most working class neighborhoods this year, public officials largely shied away from acknowledging the dead at official meetings. They’ve also shied away from addressing the conditions that have fueled so much death especially among Latinos, who make up nearly half of all OC Covid-19 cases and deaths.
Yet the dead shouldn’t be ignored.
There have been 1,475 people who have died this year from the Coronavirus since March.
On this weekend, when so many Latino families will be recognizing the Day of the Dead, also known as El Dia De Los Muertos, there will 636 Latino families across Orange County that will be memorializing the death of a loved one from Covid-19.
Based on the most recent OC Health Care Agency data – Latinos make up 35% of the population – but are 47.98% of all confirmed COVID cases – and 43.41% of COVID-19 deaths.
That drama seems to have largely played out in the neighborhoods of Santa Ana and Anaheim.
The total numbers of deaths for Santa Ana (315) and Anaheim (316) give a sense the stark impacts of these numbers at the local level, playing out in a stark manner throughout just a few concentrated, working class neighborhoods, largely in communities of color.
Note that right behind Latinos are Asians, who make up 21% of Covid-19 deaths.
The City of Garden Grove has the third highest deaths in Orange County behind Anaheim and Santa Ana at 109.
The number of deaths goes down into the single digits after these three cities.
What does that tell you?
The workers that do so much of our essential jobs – and their families – are incredibly at risk in this new Covid-19 economy.
Note that deaths started to skyrocket after the Memorial Day weekend, when under pressure from county supervisors, County Health Officer Clayton Chau walked back a mask order that in many ways protected essential workers.
Now, despite the loud protests from the Orange County Board of Supervisors about the state’s new Health Equity index — a measurement that ties the rate of opening up more large gathering spaces like theme parks to virus transmission rates in working class neighborhoods — it seems only logical to address the massive amount of death impacting these areas.
Yet that hasn’t happened for the better part of this year.
Orange County health officials initially fought against disclosing city-specific deaths and COVID-19 cases, reportedly because city managers didn’t want that information out.
Places like the Happiest Place on Earth weren’t reportedly excited about publicizing the story playing out in the neighborhoods right outside Downtown Disney.
Eventually public opinion — and pressure from a few county supervisors — triggered county officials to start sharing that data.
That was the start of turning things around.
Credit goes to Latino Health Access nonprofit director America Bracho for pushing for the release of neighborhood-specific health zip code data to show exactly where the COVID-19 battle lines were at.
Bracho has for years — correctly so — argued that Orange County needs to focus much of it’s health data on a neighborhood zip code basis because that really allows doctors and policymakers to truly assess and treat systemic health inequities that now during COVID-19 threaten not only lives but our entire economy.
Confronting inequity has now become central to doing business.
The results are easy to measure.
Once Orange County’s Health Care Agency started to really partner with groups like Latino Health Access — a group they once criticized for having the word Latino in their name — virus case positivity rates in the hardest hit Latino neighborhoods started to drop markedly.
The nonprofits had something the huge HCA didn’t.
Boots on the ground.
These nonprofit “Promotoras,” ventured out into threatened neighborhoods and were able to both educate and directly help those who needed an ability to quarantine by securing hotel stays. In other cases, they referred cases to doctors or just delivered food to those shut in.
Once Orange County started to address those neighborhood inequities, the deaths and case rates started to ease.
All it took was confronting the concept of equity — specifically addressing housing overcrowding along with access to food, open space, recreation and health care in the most threatened neighborhoods.
Despite the turnaround, the concept of equity is still something that Orange County supervisors continue to have a hard time with.
Yet Gov. Gavin Newsom says equity is something he’s going to be stubborn about.
This weekend, there’s also a message for those neighborhoods that they are not forgotten.
Despite many Latinos being shut in during this year’s El Dia de los Muertos, Latino Health Access will be taking a mobile altar around, driving through the most affected areas all weekend long.
Saturday in Santa Ana. Sunday in Anaheim.
The big question facing us all is what will happen on Monday.
The county’s new Health Care Agency director and Public Health Officer, Dr. Chau, is saying the outreach to these communes has only just begun.
Despite county supervisors’ heartburn for the concept of equity, Chau is telling them there’s no other way to open places like Disneyland.
So Chau is making it official.
But will it really?
Chau this past week announced the establishment of a social justice official at the county government that addresses inequity on a permanent basis moving forward.
But can one official really do that?
Can one official reverse tons of bad planning, destruction of open space, lack of health care and healthy food options in these neighborhoods?
County supervisors – and public bureaucrats – have a wonderful affinity for new agency names and titles – as opposed to focusing on solutions.
I still remember when Supervisor Andrew Do joyfully announced that Orange County’s homelessness policies would get standardized — as opposed to the unconnected mess they were – by the appointment of a Homelessness Czar.
Susan Price took over the job with lots of fanfare – but in the end had no real political support, much less vision, from the county board of supervisors.
Years later, she’s over in Costa Mesa as an Assistant City Manager.
No more talk of the homelessness Czar.
Remember the Office of Independent Review?
That was the bureaucracy created in the wake of the 2006 jail beating death of John Derek Chamberlain in Orange County jail.
That office was supposed to create police accountability.
Instead, it has been underfunded and without much leadership, even vacant at times, for most of its life.
Speaking of vacant, that reminds me of the County Performance Auditor.
An amazing statement to transparency, back when county supervisors created the position in about 2010 and tasked it with being Orange County’s chief auditor – with the ability to issue pubilc reports.
It issued some wonderful documents that really peeled the skin back on Orange County’s bureaucracy.
Today, the post remains vacant.
Ironically, Dr. Chau came into office under a cloud of controversy after a more medically-certified doctor, Dr. Nicole Quick, refused to work with county supervisors – who were pressing against mandatory mask orders or rigorous health inspections of restaurants for Covid-19 protocols.
Yet Chau’s lack of medical expertise may ultimately end up being less relevant if – due to the fact he understands local nonprofits, along with the concepts of diversity and equity – he can help steer the county in ways that allow it to really address underlying issues that now ultimately threaten our economy and broader way of life.
That is, if the politicians, stay out of the way.
Judging from the fate of the Homelessness Czar, the Office of Independent Review and the Performance Auditor, Chau will need all the help he can get.