The unequal toll of COVID-19 in California

Latinos suffer the highest death rate of any race or ethnicity in the state

ENCINITAS, Calif. — The celebratory chords of a mariachi band filled the community center. On seemingly every surface fresh marigold blossoms glowed a bright orange.

And, in Encinita, town just north of San Diego, two types of masks were present at its recent Día de Muertos event: faces painted white and black to resemble skulls as well as the more familiar kind — cloth coverings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The virus we’ve been living alongside for nearly two years has left us grappling with a staggering, unfathomable level of loss. On Monday, the official worldwide death toll from COVID-19 hit 5 million.

In California, the pandemic has imbued Día de Muertos, the annual tradition also known as Day of the Dead, with particular, painful significance.

COVID-19 has killed more than 32,000 Latinos in California, giving the group the highest death rate of any race or ethnicity in the state.

Naimeh Woodward, president of Encinitas Friends of the Arts, which hosted this weekend’s Día de Muertos celebration, said “This year, it’s really relevant more than ever.”

Día de Muertos ceremonies remember and honor the dead, typically around Nov. 1 and 2 — All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar. The holiday, widely celebrated in Mexico, has been gaining popularity across the world and the United States in recent decades, with an extra boost from the 2017 Pixar movie “Coco.”

At the event in Encinitas, colorful candles, painted skulls, fresh and paper flowers, and framed photographs of smiling faces lined tables. These altars, or ofrendas, are meant to entice departed loved ones to briefly return to the land of the living.

Ofrendas were adorned with mangos, sweetbreads, cans of Tecate and glass bottles of Coca-Cola. Garlands and bouquets of brilliant marigolds further help attract the spirits.

“If you don’t put that picture there that means you forget about them, so that’s why every year you have to remember them so they can come and bless you,” said Beatriz Villarreal, who grew up in Mexico City and emcees the Encinitas event. “My father loved whiskey and chocolate, so I put a little bottle of whiskey and chocolate.”

Latinos make up the largest ethnic group in California (they are 39% of the population), but their share of COVID-19 deaths (45%) is even higher, particularly among younger age groups. The same is true nationwide.

Sixty-six percent of 18- to 34-year-olds who have died from COVID-19 in California were Latino, although Latinos account for just 45% of the population in that age group, according to The Los Angeles Times. By contrast, white Californians make up 30% of that age group but 12% of its deaths.

There are several reasons: Latinos are more likely to have poor access to medical care, work essential jobs that can’t be done remotely and live in crowded, multigenerational homes where the virus can easily spread.

The mortality gap is likely to persist as long as the pandemic does, and may even widen. In recent months, a lower rate of COVID-19 vaccination has emerged among Latinos.

For all communities in California, the toll of the pandemic has been extraordinary, and far more than we could have imagined back in March 2020. Last month, California surpassed 70,000 deaths from COVID-19.

This is a scale of devastation typical in wars and the most horrific of natural disasters. The pandemic has left us with a grief so enormous we will process it for years to come, perhaps on Día de Muertos.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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