Politico notes that in California, the seven counties with the highest per-capita COVID-19 rates are all in top agricultural counties, with six of the seven clustered in the Central Valley—a vital region for the nation’s food supply. The same dynamics are true in Washington, Arizona, and other agricultural regions. Politico also reports that “at least 57,000 food system workers” have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.
There are numerous explanations for what’s going on here. Politico only focuses on one of them: farmworker-to-farmworker transmission. It’s certainly a top concern, as it is in any other workplace. Farmworkers may work outside, reducing pandemic risk, but they also often work shoulder-to-shoulder, often travel to the job together, and are of necessity frequently traveling to new locations. Couple that with undocumented workers’ natural resistance to seeking help for fear of deportation, the extremely low pay provided, the utter lack of provided healthcare, and the “essential” nature of the job, and it is easy to see why the virus can travel quickly and freely through farm communities after it has been introduced.
Indeed, Politico notes a California Institute for Rural Studies report finding agricultural workers in Monterey County were “more than three times as likely” to be infected than the county’s non-agricultural industries.
What Politico doesn’t go into is the politics of these places. They’re predominantly rural, by definition, and predominantly Republican and conservative by tradition. California’s Central Valley is far more conservative than its major cities. The agricultural hub of Fresno, California, is a COVID-19 hotspot—and it’s also the home of absolute crackpot Republican House member Devin Nunes, one of the Republican Party’s top Donald Trump allies and defenders.
Those two things should not be seen as coincidental. As we’ve seen in Texas and Florida, Republican-governed areas have seen sharp rises of pandemic cases after politically motivated “reopenings.” Conservative regions have been quick to dismiss the pandemic as, if not an outright “hoax,” a political attack on Donald Trump. You won’t see as many masks, and not much patience for social distancing.
What you will see, however, is rampant racism—especially toward the very farmworkers those counties depend on. This nation’s agricultural workers are continuing to face disproportionate risks in the COVID-19 pandemic; by and large, however, that is by design.