Since New Mexico's first reported case of the coronavirus on March 11, the state — and the whole nation — has seen a massive change in routine and policy to help "flatten the curve."

While communities have come together amid these trying times to stay as safe and stable as possible, it seems the poorest and most disadvantaged people remain overlooked and underserved. As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, already-marginalized groups are disproportionately affected.

With more than 26,000 virus cases statewide, New Mexico public schools moved to an online-only model for (at least) the start of the school year, and many jobs have either cut pay or laid off employees to compensate for losses in revenue. Though this pandemic has impacted everyone, low-income workers and people of color have been hit harder than others — especially in a state like New Mexico, where poverty levels are some of the highest in the nation at 20.4 percent.

According to Amber Wallin, deputy director of New Mexico Voices for Children, around 34 percent of children in New Mexico are food insecure as a result of the pandemic. Many of them, she said, already suffered from disparities; the pandemic is simply aggravating and highlighting those conditions.

“We know that going into the pandemic, low-income children in our state and the children of color in our state were facing bigger challenges than many of their peers,” Wallin said. “What we see is that those challenges have been exacerbated, that COVID has really increased racial and ethnic disparities and disparities along income lines." 

Kimberly Lovato , a senior at New Mexico Connections Academy , is among those who have been impacted by the economic implications of the pandemic, since many of the places she and her family worked have closed.

"Because my family works mainly in customer service and essential business, including me, obviously the first concern is making sure no one gets sick," she said. Her second priority "is being able to get stuff like food or cleaning supplies that are a little harder to acquire due to COVID."

Lovato added that money from federal stimulus checks didn't last long for her family of four. Although the supplementary checks matched her income, the time between them, along with the increased price of basic necessities, meant it was easier for money to run out in a shorter amount of time, she said.

And with local businesses being forced to shut down and families losing homes, the deep, long-lasting impacts COVID-19 has on communities can often go ignored, Lovato said.

Fernanda Banda, the advocacy lead at New Mexico Dream Team, agreed that certain perspectives on the virus are often forgotten — mainly those from immigrant and undocumented families, and from essential employees who are putting themselves at risk every day for low pay. On the federal level, undocumented and immigrant families, especially those without a Social Security number, may not be able to receive the same assistance and benefits for COVID-19 that others do, she said.

Banda said language barriers also amplify the inequalities that come with access to resources because of potential misinformation.

Especially at the start of the pandemic, she said, "I was trying to convince a lot of my family members to consume this and not this; they were getting really worried and scared."

These language barriers can contribute to different interpretations of the news and guidelines for safety. Those who don't understand English might miss or misinterpret rules regarding wearing a mask in public places or advice that urges individuals to stay home and practice social distancing, especially from elderly people.

Additionally, many of those living paycheck to paycheck and perhaps at high risk of contracting the virus don't have the option to work from home and can't afford to take time off, Banda said. This is "just the harsh reality a lot of my community gets to be a part of," she said.

Allison Pereira-Leon, a senior at Mandela International Magnet School , believes children in families who are forced to take pay cuts and work from home also are disproportionately impacted by these circumstances.

This worsens amid school closures, since many kids "relied on the food that the schools provided,” she said. This only adds to New Mexico's food insecurity, she said.

Banda agreed, recalling that when she was a student she was also dependent on school meals.

“I didn't notice it back then, how excited I would get over breakfast or over lunch. … I didn't realize how dependent my mother was that we would eat at school. And yet I see now where these meals can no longer be provided," she said.

Carl Marano, the principal of Santa Fe High School , also shares concerns about the impacts of off-campus schooling. For him, he mostly worries that the online model could lower students' success rates and cause isolation.

“It's not just the academics, but the socialization piece — learning how to collaborate and to be with peers," Marano said.

"I also have a big concern about our special-education students who need support, social work, physical therapy and occupational therapy," he added. "They're getting their therapies in a remote environment, and we're doing the best we can with it, but that's also where they especially need to be on-site.”

Despite these setbacks, however, the resources that have been made available have been instrumental in allowing students and their families to better cope with the multifaceted hardships the pandemic has presented, he said. From free meals offered by Santa Fe Public Schools at “meal drop-off sites” to the availability of masks, free electronic devices and newly implemented internet hotspots, many students and families in and around Santa Fe have depended on the district to better access their online courses and stay safe and healthy.

While COVID-19 continues to have a significant impact on how people continue their lives, especially in already-underserved populations, Wallin agreed the available resources are a crucial step forward.

“Our state and our policymakers have really done an incredible job doing all that they can to slow and decrease the spread of the pandemic in our state," she said, "and they've also really done a great job of identifying ways that they can improve access to crucial housing and unemployment insurance benefits — those programs that are really so important for New Mexico families struggling right now."

With the continued support and resources from the state, many locals are hopeful that everyone — regardless of their socioeconomic status, culture or geographic location — can recover from this pandemic. 

But part of making that a reality, Banda said, is holding each person accountable to spreading awareness and advocating for long-term change.

"After this pandemic, what is going to happen? How are we going to navigate this world differently?" she said. "I hope [paying more attention and getting more involved] all leads to more radical change.”

Niveditha Bala is a senior at Mandela International Magnet School. Contact her at niveditha.bala@mandelainternationalschool.us

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