Letter: New Americans are not to blame

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Last week, Valley News Live featured a story about the North Dakota Long Term Care Association and Fargo's Villa Maria facility, which leads the state in the number of COVID-19 cases. Afro American Development Association and our partners South Sudan Foundation and Immigrant Development Center would like to take this opportunity to respond.

Shelly Peterson is the president of the association and was interviewed by Valley News Live, which reported that she said that in terms of how COVID-19 got into the facility, it may have to do with the New American population. "What’s unique about Fargo, and that’s different about the rest of the state, is that they have a great new American population and sometimes we see them living in larger households. And more people, that’s greater risk for exposure," Peterson said.

Across the country, COVID-19 has ravaged nursing care facilities, leading to high rates of infection and death. But somehow in Fargo, it is the New Americans who have been the main drivers of the pandemic? Hardly.

What is true is that our community is placed at high risk for infection and is the least considered by the current system of public health. Unlike human beings COVID-19 does not discriminate. It knows no race.

What does impact the spread of COVID-19 is factors that started long before the pandemic. Some of these factors are called social determinants of health. They include circumstances like access to safe housing, healthy food, health care, transportation, and living wage jobs. These social determinants place individuals at different levels of risk for poor health outcomes.


For example, if you live in a community where no fresh produce is sold, you are at higher risk of developing diabetes, and thus, more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection and morbidity.

New Americans are also some of our communities’ most essential workers. We work at slaughterhouses to fill grocery stores with meat products. We work in home health care settings to care for our communities’ sick and elderly. We manufacture essential products needed for medical providers, and so many other industries. Now we are blamed for spreading the virus?

What choice do we really have but to perform these jobs? Look at any measure of wealth: home ownership, income, college education–and you will find wide disparities between households based on race, with every system intentionally favoring white families. Discriminatory lending practices are well documented. They did not stop with redlining.

When New Americans cannot make rent or put food on the table, we do not have access to a financial system of credit, generational wealth, or community goodwill to uplift us through hardship. We have ourselves. So we go to work.

New Americans are not the cause of spreading COVID-19. The public health response to COVID-19 has centered around the needs of the dominant culture, with little consideration given to groups at higher risk and less access to resources. We predicted this months ago.

When we began to develop our strategy to respond to COVID-19, we partnered with one Somali American public health professional who shared her perspective, which has served as a guidepost in our efforts. She shared, “when this is over, we will publish papers and share scientific evaluations about how we responded to the pandemic before us. But history will judge us on inequities furthered by our response to COVID-19. Now is the time to ask ourselves, how are we reaching communities of color, immigrants, people in poverty, and others who are already marginalized in our society?” The answer in Fargo is: we are not.

Dabar is executive director of Afro American Development Association.

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