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Grief, loss and survival: how a South Richmond community held on in the first year of the pandemic
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Grief, loss and survival: how a South Richmond community held on in the first year of the pandemic

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The fabric of the neighborhood began to fray in mid-March once music no longer drifted in through open windows. Children, whose sole mission was to feel the scraping of grass blades on their bare feet, were shuffled inside, left to wonder how they would manage school in a house with finicky Wi-Fi and little room to concentrate.

In Southwood, some parents didn’t know how to use a computer.

They contended with the stress of making sure money kept coming in, the lingering fear that compelled them to routinely wipe surfaces with disinfectants, the worry that their kids might slip behind. Xiomara Vidal, an anchor to the South Richmond community of mostly immigrants and Latinos in front-line jobs, heard people utter that the pandemic lull would last only two weeks.

“So we’ll be OK,” they’d tell her. “God will cure me. God will help me.”

Then their neighbors started dying and two weeks became a year.

Residents concocted at-home remedies to shield themselves from the virus in the form of Vicks VapoRub gooped onto chests or slathered under noses until nostrils burned from the minty menthol — anything to keep reality from steadily unraveling. The little blue jar, along with honey-and-lemon hot tea, has near-limitless faith among Latinos.

“The community was still in shock,” said Vidal, a Spanish medical interpreter with the Virginia Department of Health. “Like, ‘It’s not going to happen to us. I probably have a cold, but it’s not that. ... It’s not going to reach us.’”

People began blaming Latinos and Asians for the spread, she continued, and that’s when they understood the feeling of a growing desperation.

“I’m out of work because of COVID. This is real.”

A lagging federal response for sufficient testing and a failure to grasp with data how thoroughly the virus had infiltrated Latinos’ lungs meant the burden on neighborhoods like Southwood was uncertain for months.

The placeholders for knowing were stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines not all households were set up to support. Skepticism around masks meant few wore the protective gear, and Vidal religiously kept a stockpile on hand to chase down residents strolling without one.

And the virus continued to rage. By June 16, Latinos were 45% of the state’s cases and more than a third of its hospitalizations.

‘Trying to find solutions in a crisis’

Vidal, a Dominican American from New York, didn’t need to see the numbers. She lived the aftermath. On March 26, more than 360 miles away and two weeks after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, her godmother died. Then she grieved her childhood friend and her friend’s mother in back-to-back months.

As her world fell apart, Vidal watched the virus creep across Southwood from her desk at the resource center off Clarkson Road and rallied residents and kids to do what they’ve mastered for years: Hold on and endure.

At a time when the act of breathing and having a “cafecito” had become dangerous, when evictions battered communities already struggling, when basic household expenses felt impossible to pay, they chose not to forgo love.

Neighbors stood ready to check in on one another as caregivers crossed state lines in search of income following a quadrupled national unemployment rate for Latinos in April. They exchanged homemade meals to support the mothers who had no option but to leave work and look after their children.

A year later, Hispanic women have suffered the largest setbacks in the workforce.

With unbearable challenges mounting, people turned to Vidal and Shanteny Jackson, a VDH community health worker at Southwood, for a sign, information. Financial survival.

“I felt that I was at the bottom,” said Jackson, recalling the scale of need. “I felt that if my community didn’t see the leverage that they needed, we would be in worse situations.”

Stimulus checks, a $600 boost to weekly unemployment benefits and a temporary eviction moratorium could have been the neighborhood’s chance at stability. Instead, the federal measures excluded many of Southwood’s people, offering little comfort and a muddled information pipeline that would make April and May an anxious two-month stretch of the pandemic.

Vidal and Jackson fielded panicked calls and frantic messages.

“People were in a state of despair,” Jackson said. “That’s the actual word to describe it. They didn’t know what to do. People were dying. They were going to the hospitals. They were trying to find a solution to the crisis.”

At the time, there seemingly were none. Immigrants without legal status did not qualify for a stimulus. Neither did mixed-status families, where one member is a citizen or permanent resident and another is not. This didn’t change until December.

Unemployment benefits were delayed and residents couldn’t find jobs. Many low-wage hourly workers didn’t qualify. Zero paid sick leave meant they couldn’t quarantine without sacrificing a week’s worth of groceries or rent money. Without health insurance, they feared hospitalizations would mean insurmountable bills.

The lack of options forced essential workers to compete with a virus that preyed on the often-cramped conditions in which they spent their days. The virus often won.

‘It’s not complete, but it’s hope’

With each passing day as exhaustion grew, more seemed out of Vidal and Jackson’s control. To ease the shortfall, the Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield health districts infused money into resources for food, rent and utilities relief, protective equipment and bilingual staff.

Sacred Heart Center, an advocate arm for Latino families in the region, prepared meals to keep thousands fed. It delivered groceries, offered homework help and conducted weekly Facebook briefings in Spanish on COVID-19 information. Latino community health workers partnered with nonprofit Casa de la Salud to remove barriers to medical access. Community clinics stepped up their testing capacity.

Still, they knew the need remained. How could one community do so much with so little?

In July, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team agreed. The federal agency identified alarmingly high rates in central Virginia’s Latino communities and pledged a swath of resources to support the region’s Latino-serving organizations.

A combination of individual donors, local and national foundations, and the CDC have raised $2.2 million since. Data from the CDC showed transmission in Richmond could be reduced by 86% if obstacles to quarantining were removed. Slowly, the infection rates began to drop.

“It’s not complete, but it’s hope,” Jackson said. “What we are doing right now is not just for us. It’s for the generation that is rising.”

The virus heightened insecurities surrounding immigration status and job availability, but “none of this is new for Latino families,” said Sarai Coba-Rodriguez, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago focused on Black and Latino families in low-income areas.

“What’s new is the disease. But everything else has been happening for many years,” said Coba-Rodriguez, referencing how communities have built this support from the ground up. “And families have been successful. They’ve been thriving, and they’ve been resilient. That’s what continues to happen. It’s just looking very different right now.”

In the absence of social support and schools being closed, families have relied on one another to survive, Coba-Rodriguez said. They’ve spent more time together, built deeper connections and helped one another cope.

That’s what the VDH’s Vidal has clung to nearly 600,000 COVID-19 cases later: lifting the pandemic loneliness alongside her daughter. They have slumped on the couch binge-watching Netflix shows and let the twang of bachata be the lasso to a time where Vidal could hug her mom and make her childhood kitchen a dance floor.

At Southwood, she had her other kids, whose birthdays she’s memorized and whose emotions she’s helped process with journaling and weekly groups. Blanca Martinez Vasquez, 15, is one of them. When there was nowhere left to go, she ran to Vidal.

On a recent drive to pick up a Panera order for Southwood clinic volunteers, Blanca described Vidal as a constant supporter who fought to get her into private school and planned a birthday surprise for Blanca’s mother when she forgot to.

As she watches them grow up in a pandemic, Vidal only wishes they could see what she sees — how they didn’t give up. How they let resilience win.

One year after everything shut down

The room, lined with clothing donations, paper hearts and brochures in Spanish detailing health care programs, would have been teeming with people had this been a regular year. Small “X’s” taped onto black chairs, indicating a 6-foot distance, were a reminder that it wasn’t. Not yet.

But for a brief moment, the livelihood returned as Bob Jiggepps, 78, paced the lobby, carrying a gray Kohl’s bag that held his tax forms inside a portable filing box. He told Vidal his dreams of stepping foot into a church again, how he was freshly vaccinated and ready to take on what came his way. A recent sustained decline in cases and an uptick in vaccinations have teased a future where he can.

“And another thing, I am a chatterbox,” he continued.

“I got that impression,” Vidal joked. She’s one, too.

Jiggepps took pride in taking the first dose to keep the virus at bay, but Vidal said most Richmond-area Latinos aren’t rushing to get a shot.

“Why should I be their guinea pigs?” they ask Vidal, a reference to a deeply burrowed mistrust in a health care system that has experimented on and discriminated against immigrants and Latinos.

Statewide, Latinos account for less than 6% of vaccinations, a low percentage Jackson attributes to a 60-40 divide between hesitancy and barriers to access.

A vast decentralized effort across organizations, the VDH and localities is underway to curb myths and address concerns, but vaccines are still going to mostly white residents, said Rebecca Arboleda, a public health nurse at the Richmond City Health District who conducts vaccinations at the Arthur Ashe Center and mobile clinics.

Recently, she’s seen a slight uptick in Latinos showing up, a sign she hopes means a shift is coming.

On Thursday, Arboleda waited for her next appointment to arrive at the Southwood Resource Center, where she hosts family planning clinics twice a week.

She bantered with Vidal, who sat eyeing the door for walk-ins as she ate homemade pretzel bites, musing about how it’s been a year since everything changed and the center emptied out. Maybe soon, it would be safe again, she said.

Maybe.

Briefly, the last of the afternoon sun hit the wall behind her, pointing toward a Pablo Neruda quote hung above.

“Podrán cortar todas las flores, pero no podrán detener la primavera,” it said.

“You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.”

smoreno@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6103

Twitter: @sabrinaamorenoo

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