In Westlake, a community especially vulnerable to COVID-19

The predominantly Latinx neighborhood is now a “high-risk area.”

At the intersection of Sixth and Bonnie Brae streets, where a Guatemalan street food market draws nightly crowds, signs posted by the city on all four corners advise passersby in Spanish and English that the neighborhood has been identified as a “high-risk area.”

That’s because Westlake, the densely populated, predominantly Latinx neighborhood that surrounds LA’s MacArthur Park, has earned the grim distinction of having the most COVID-19 deaths of any community in the city.

Gil Cedillo, the city councilman for the 1st District, which includes Westlake, installed the warning signs in an effort to spread the word in the pedestrian-heavy neighborhood where residents have been hit hard by the virus.

“We already knew the economic disparities in our district were a microcosm for LA and the country,” said Conrado Terrazas, a spokesman for the councilman’s office. Now, he says, the neighborhood’s large population of essential workers have been failed by state and city governments. “They’re the engines for our economy, and we need to take care of them, and that’s not been happening. This health crisis has just shown it even more.”

Estela Carillo, who serves grilled meat in the street food market at Sixth and Bonnie Brae, has installed her own sign on the wall behind her: “Please wear a mask. Take care of the health of others like others take care of your health by wearing masks,” it reads in Spanish. Carillo is suspicious, though, of the intentions behind the city’s official signs. She knows the city has threatened to disperse the nightly gathering of street food vendors. “They want to get us out,” she said.

Carrillo’s distrust of the city government is understandable. Her neighborhood has suffered from neglect by the city for years, and by the time of the pandemic, a few signs posted on corners may be too little, too late.

Westlake’s essential workers, who work in health care, food service and public transportation, are often not treated as essential. A majority of the neighborhood’s residents are immigrants, and many are undocumented or live in mixed-status households, making access to healthcare resources difficult. When some residents inevitably get infected, the virus can spread easily in what are often crowded conditions with large families living in small apartments.

“There isn’t enough housing that can serve our community,” said Alexandra Morales, communications director at CARECEN, an advocacy group based near MacArthur Park. “You have instances where you have maybe three families living in one apartment, and that does not help in a situation like this.”

CARECEN has been leading community activism for immigration and labor justice for years, but the group now faces a new obstacle: connecting with families in the time of COVID-19. “Not everyone has internet,” Morales explained, “not everyone knows how to jump on Zoom.”

In spite of this, the group was able to lobby the state and secure funds for a disaster relief program for undocumented families left behind by the federal economic impact payments. They have also been continuing to operate their day labor center in the heart of Westlake, providing masks and safety information to the many workers whom they serve.

“When a family’s affected, they’re not just affected by one singular, in-a-vacuum issue,” Morales said. “They’re affected by multiple issues at the same time. When it rains, it really pours for our immigrant families in the Westlake area.”

Food insecurity is one of these issues, and it has only been intensified by the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Daniel Ozorio, a Cal State LA student who grew up in the area, has been volunteering with the Pico-Union Project, a cultural center in neighboring Pico-Union, to provide free food to people who need it as part of a COVID-19 emergency drive. The neighborhood has also been hard hit by the coronavirus.

Ozorio’s parents are essential workers, but he’d been taking classes online and was looking for a way to help his neighbors. “They were thankful that people were willing to go volunteer and help them out in a time of need where many of them would rather say no due to the concern they themselves had,” he said.

Cedillo’s office has worked with the project to hand out pamphlets that explain COVID-19 safety measures to the community along with food.

Issues like food insecurity, which groups like CARECEN have long been working to fight, have come to a head during the pandemic, contributing to the high death rate in the neighborhood.

Health disparities are deeply rooted in low-income neighborhoods, explained Titus Galama, director of USC’s Center for the Study of Health Inequality.

“Early life conditions put you on a trajectory where both your health and your socioeconomic opportunities can be disadvantaged,” Galama said.

The economic disparities that exist between Los Angeles neighborhoods have translated into bleak healthcare situations in places like Westlake. Rev. Michael Bell, head chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital, points out that “one of the most observable dynamics in our neighborhood is the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty within blocks of each other in downtown Los Angeles.”

Bell says his department at the hospital has had to shift the ways they provide much-needed spiritual care to COVID-19 victims. While deaths have increased, the chaplain cannot be available for religious guidance in the same way he normally has been for those who are dying and grieving. Instead, he is using televisions in patient’s rooms to provide “worship, prayer, and meditation experiences,” and is considering offering online grief support groups.

Describing “a marbled mix of fatigue, grief, trauma, moral distress, hope, resolve and resilience” in his department, Bell said hospitals need more funding, but that’s just the beginning.

Like Morales at CARECEN, Bell says returning to normal is not enough as the city tackles the pandemic. “Normal” conditions in Westlake — low-paying essential jobs, overcrowded housing, and lack of resources for undocumented people — are precisely what have contributed to the high infection and death rates in the area.

Gonzalo Martín operates a fruit and vegetable stand at Sixth and Bonnie Brae streets, adjacent to the Guatemalan street food market. He says business has been difficult and he’s worried about illness, but he’s got bills to pay. “Everything has changed, but the rent doesn’t wait,” Martín said.

Economic precarity has been one of the deadliest forces in the COVID-19 pandemic. Groups like CARECEN are addressing the root causes for Westlake’s high death rate, but the coronavirus crisis won’t wait.

“In a moment like this,” Morales said, “it really speaks to how much work we have left to do.”