Health Risks Down in the Valley: COVID-19 and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas

Written by Audrey B. Gatta on 08/17/2020

COVID is wreaking havoc on Texas, a state that ignored warnings and eased restrictions in early May. The state’s major cities are at a critical stage. Harris County, the most populous county in the state, had 1,957 cases per 100,000 residents as of August 16 [1]. Yet far more debilitating is the pandemic’s toll on the Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of Texas. Despite being less densely populated, the Valley’s infection rate recently surpassed that of Harris County. As of August 16, the Valley had 3,144 cases per 100,000 residents [1]. Essential jobs, inadequate medical access, overcrowded housing, and traditional gatherings create conditions for the virus to thrive. The pandemic magnifies the region’s preexisting poverty and the vulnerability of the population.

Poverty in Texas is unevenly distributed across the state. Texas’s border counties are amongst the nation’s most persistently poor across three censuses [2]. A third of the Rio Grande Valley’s population lives below the federal poverty level, and close to 30% of the region’s residents do not have health insurance [3]. The region is especially susceptible to the economic effects of COVID-19. Overlooked individuals are dealing with a heavy financial burden, insufficient government support, and insecure housing while putting their lives at risk working during the pandemic.

The largest occupations in the Valley are high-risk jobs in grocery, fast food, retail, and domestic work, which are typically paid low wages [4, 5]. Texas adopts the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour, yet the living wage in the region is over $10 for one adult with no children and over $14 for two working adults with two children [6, 7]. The industries’ low wages are insufficient to cover basic housing, childcare, food, transportation, and medical costs. To pay their bills and feed their families, these employees must continue working through the pandemic. Since their jobs cannot be done remotely, essential workers face an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

However, continuing to work is not an option for those suffering from layoffs or furloughs. Reflective of the discrimination toward non-white workers across the United States, Hispanic Texans have endured larger declines in employment compared to white Texans [8]. In the Valley, where over 90% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, the unemployment rate surged from 6.5% in February to 17.1% in May, surpassing the statewide rate of 13% [2, 9]. Moreover, an estimated 140,000 residents in the region facing these higher unemployment rates are undocumented, which makes their situation even more precarious [10]. At a time when they need it most, these workers are excluded from unemployment benefits and stimulus checks under the CARES Act [11].

Unemployment is not their only concern; contracting COVID is a serious threat to their communities. Knowing that the virus would proliferate through their living environments, immigrant families are anxious about becoming sick and spreading the virus to their loved ones. The Rio Grande Valley is home to over 900 “colonias,” which are unincorporated, impoverished settlements along the US-Mexico border. These settlements lack basic services, such as running water, electricity, and paved roads [12]. Living conditions in colonias are a petri dish for the spread of the virus because of the close quarters and lack of proper hygiene. With overcrowded housing, there is no possibility of social distancing or self-isolation. Compounding the issue further, the immigration status and lack of health insurance of many residents of colonias further complicate their willingness or ability to seek medical help [13].

Finally, cultural gatherings in the region have resulted in fast and widespread contagion. Social distancing is uniquely challenging in the Valley’s communities, where close-knit “ pachangas,” or family gatherings, are a staple of the lively culture. Cris Flores, a resident of the Valley, described to reporter Edgar Sandoval how her grandfather loved bringing relatives together for festive pachangas. By keeping the gatherings small, the family believed that they were doing the right thing. Yet only a few days later, several family members began showing unmistakable symptoms, and her grandfather developed a severe respiratory illness. Relatives found themselves bidding him emotional farewells all too soon [14].

The Rio Grande Valley was not prepared to fight a pandemic, and as a result, the most vulnerable population suffers with no end in sight. With these communities being especially susceptible to the disastrous effects of COVID-19, it is critical that the Valley is not overshadowed by larger cities in the ongoing discussion of the pandemic.

1. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html
2. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/county-typology-codes/descriptions-and-maps/#ppov
3. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/willacycountytexas,starrcountytexas,cameroncountytexas,hidalgocountytexas/RHI725219
4. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/area_emp_chart/area_emp_chart.htm
5. https://www.valleycentral.com/news/local-news/data-rio-grande-valley-wages-among-the-lowest-in-the-united-states/
6. https://www.twc.texas.gov/jobseekers/texas-minimum-wage-law
7. https://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/48427
8. https://faculty.utrgv.edu/salvador.contreras/images/20i2/cbest_bbb_20q2.pdf
9. https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/25/texas-unemployment-rate-coronavirus-rio-grande-valley/
10. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/data/unauthorized-immigrant-population/county/48215
11. https://www.texasobserver.org/construction-work-covid-19-coronavirus/
12. https://salud-america.org/colonias-a-public-health-crisis-on-the-texas-mexico-border/
13. https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2020/07/06/coronavirus-immigrants-essential-workers/
14. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/coronavirus-texas-rio-grande-valley-border.html