Badly hit by pandemic, California farm workers still least vaccinated group: study

Ritu Jha-

Ten months after people were first vaccinated in the US, agricultural workers make the group with the lowest rates of vaccination.

Edward Flores, assistant professor of sociology and co-director of a UC Merced Center on Labor and Community, said the study he led suggests that more investment is required to increase vaccination rates and reduce the spread of COVID. He was speaking at an ethnic media virtual event Oct. 20, titled “Kern County Farmworkers, Food Processors Still At Risk – Pandemic Reaches Turning Point.”
Flores said the Central Valley was a hotspot for the spread of COVID in 2020, and California’s agricultural workers had been at a much higher risk of pandemic-related death than other workers.

Kern County has a large number of agricultural workers, many of whom are Sikhs of Indian origin.
The Central Valley had among the state’s highest increase in deaths in 2019 and 2020. Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and the Central Valley accounted for over two-thirds of the state’s 45,500 pandemic-related deaths.

Born in Central Valley, California, Naindeep Singh, co- founder and executive director of the Jakara Movement, a non-profit grassroots community-building organization working to empower, educate, and organize Punjabi Sikhs, and other marginalized communities, discussed the impact for Punjabi workers at food processor companies in Kern County.

When indica News asked Singh why many farm workers were not getting vaccinated, he said, “It’s complicated. People have different reasons for vaccinating and not being vaccinated, so it’s hard to share a single story as a reason why they’re not vaccinated. It can depend on education, class, occupation, personal beliefs, and many other factors.”
During the briefing, Singh said that farm workers and employees at food processing plants were of all ages and genders, but added that “many seniors and elderly that work in these conditions are often linguistically isolated. Some have shared that they haven’t been vaccinated yet.”

Singh also stated that farm owners have not always made the vaccination option available to farm workers due to politics, preference, or their own feelings about the matter. Another reason could be that owners of smaller farms and companies may not have moved fast on vaccinations as some larger firms had.

Asked how the Jakara Movement was addressing the problem, Singh said, “We have directly reached out to some employers that did share that their workers have to figure [the process of getting vaccinations] on their own.”

Juana Montoya, a community outreach worker at Lideres Campesinas in Kern County, told indica News that in the city of Arvin, and the adjoining city Bakersfield, the majority of farm workers and some business owners are of Sikh descent. They were waiting to see how their vaccinated neighbors fared before considering the option.

“They’re just very worried this vaccine would react [badly with their systems],” Montoya said. “Many of them say that they don’t want to die. Some fear there might be a chip that can track them or something.” Besides the doubts and conspiracy theories, she pointed out another area of concern: many of these workers are undocumented.
In a call, Montoya said they also raised many questions at a vaccine clinic held on Oct 24.

“They have questions about how the vaccine got so quickly to the market though it takes time,” she said. “They ask if it will create birth complications. There is a lot of misinformation and so they still fear getting vaccinated.”

At the briefing, Singh was optimistic about the number of children of Punjabi workers who would get vaccinated.

With more vaccines available, and a bigger push, especially at the school level, people are less worried about their children being vaccinated. He said misinformation about the vaccine had focused less on the children than on older people, the question being whether it would sterilize people or cause birth defects.